Saturday 3 February 2024

HOME ECONOMICS: Theatre Review

WHAT: Home Economics
WHEN: 30 Jan - 3 Feb 2024
WHERE: Explosives Factory
WRITTEN BY: Declan Greene
DIRECTED BY: Stephanie Lee
SET BY: Filipe Filihia
COSTUMES BY: Louisa Fitzgerald
LIGHTING BY: Tom Vulcan
PERFORMED BY: Alfie Baker, Ian Ferrington, Edan Goodall, Sarah Iman, Marko Pecer, Shanu Sobti, and Charlie Veitch
SOUND BY: Jackie van Lierop
STAGE MANAGED BY: Emma Parfitt

Sarah Iman and Charlie Veitch - photo by Ronin Green

In 2009 playwright Declan Greene wrote a series of 5 studies on sex and food which came together in a collection called Home Economics. Little Ones Theatre staged 4 of the 5 for a season, there was some rewriting and Currency Press have published it.  In 2023, emerging director Stephanie Lee was looking for something to direct for her VCA graduating play and decided to present three of the vignettes - 'Sugar', 'Truffles', and 'Flour'. In 2024 Theatreworks programmed the show into their Midsumma Festival line up.

This production begins with a pubescent school girl (Shanu Sobti) who is addicted to chocolate but has refused to go to a dentist her whole life. Because of this her teeth are decaying, and her breath is toxic. She is living and loving and crushing hard just like any teenage girl, but the boys (Alfie Baker and Charlie Veitch) are repelled and express it - right to her face at times - in that sadly authentic toxic way teenagers have about them. Greene is always spot on about the ugly in us all.

The second vignette portrays a couple at a restaurant. They are forced to sit there together for what seems like hours because they aren't getting served despite continually ringing a bell. Ah, the nightmare of restaurants with really slow service! The guy (Veitch again) is a dick and you might wonder why the woman (Sarah Iman) stays, but it becomes clear that she is working. This is not just a horrific date she can walk out on. When will that waiter come????

In the final scene a Home Economics teacher (Edan Goodall) is in a loving, committed marriage (Ian Ferrington), but a mischievous student (Marko Pecer) is intent on seducing him. Will the teacher give in to temptation or will his partner's love keep him faithful?

What is great about this production is its commitment to the Queer Theatre aesthetic. The set sparkles and shimmers and the actors are brave and bold. The visuals are strong and the topics are outrageous and authentic. We go to Queer Theatre to be shocked, amazed and challenged on every level and Filipe Filihia's set does that when we enter the space, and Greene's writing finishes the job on the way through.

The dramaturgy and the direction are where this production gets lost. It begins with choice of material. Whilst the vignettes are good, strong writing they are more a set of scene studies than anything easily collated into performance without strong intention. It is not that this is impossible. It is more that it needs skill and experience to know how to craft message and intention and I just don't think this team have enough dramaturgical skill yet (even though they did have a dramaturg on the project - Zack Lewin). The exception here is costume designer Louisa Fitzgerald, who created a costume palette which is perfect and helps the audience understand everything they need to know about these characters.

Filihia's set is a breath-taking cascade of silver curtains and draped white sheers but what does any of that have to do with any part of this show? It tells us nothing beyond a slight echo of the concept of over-indulgence. This is something, sure, but is nowhere near good enough to guide the audience through any practical or conceptual narrative. It's brightness and lack of architecture also made the lighting a challenge for Tom Vulcan. Vulcan did a great job in what was essentially a big, glittery white box.

The set turns out to be a precursor to a show over-filled with VCA unconditional positive regard self-indulgence. Sobti's schoolgirl is a wonderful swirl of energy to start the show, but Lee doesn't allow her the space to delve into, and expose, the pain which is so clearly there to be explored in the writing. Baker and Veitch are great as the schoolboys but it is as if Sobti never hears anything they say. She certainly never reacts to them.

In the third vignette Pecer's schoolboy is just a drag stereotype who reveals nothing about young love and the seductive power of innocence. I spent the whole time in the final vignette thinking who on earth could ever be attracted to such a little shit, never mind sacrifice a marriage for him? Goodall, as the teacher, is phenomenal but he is having to do all the work in himself because neither Pecer nor Ferrington really give him enough to justify his struggles. Lee needs to pay far more attention to the interplay of characters. The great flaw in both of these pieces is actors not hearing each other or offering enough.

The strongest vignette is the one in the middle. Lee has actually directed a masterpiece here and this is where the set also works in well with the conversation of the piece. Iman and Veitch explore the toxic male, and the hostage female wonderfully. In this section it is perhaps Greene who lets the team down as he doesn't entirely set the reason why the woman won't/can't leave clearly enough in my opinion. I love the table bell/boxing bell analogy - a simple but effective theatre trope.

In the end, though, my plus one said it best when he said "I don't know what the take-away was." Part of that comes from the source material which is not really designed to be a 'play'. This is surmountable though with a stronger sense of intention and dramaturgical skills. This production is a fine VCA piece but it really does not successfully transition into the outside world. 

On a personal note I was frustrated to see that VCA self-indulgence carry through to the scene changes. I know the art of the quick, efficient scene change has died but if you are going to let actors 'perform' at least keep it within the construct of where the performance is at so that the audience don't disconnect. Pecer's mincing theatrics as he mopped the stage completely destroyed the momentum into scene 2 and this then coloured the tone of scene 3. Theatre is story-telling. If it's not telling the story, don't do it!

2.5 Stars


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