BritishTheatre

Published on

September 14, 2015

REVIEW: The Sum Of Us, Above The Stag Theatre ✭✭✭✭

By

timhochstrasser

The Sum Of Us at Above The Stag

The Sum Of Us

Above the Stag

11/09/15

4 Stars

One part of the mission of Above the Stag is to remind us of notable plays on gay themes that have not always received the attention they deserved, or whose continuing topicality and universal value needs restating. The Sum of Us by David Stevens falls very much within both these categories, and now receives a welcome fresh production at the launch of the autumn season.

This play is both known and not so well known. In this country it is far more familiar in its 1994 film version, starring Russell Crowe and Jack Thompson, rather than in the earlier and in some ways very different incarnation for stage. The film opens out the action considerably in ways the play cannot match and contains some very fine performances that have tended to inhibit further productions outside Australia; so this is a rare and intriguing chance to review a work that was a defining moment not just for Australia gay theatre, but for Australian theatre more broadly in the early 90s.

The action is played out in the open-plan living room of an apartment furnished in period early 90s-style. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the Australian detail, but the general period feel seemed to come from the right ‘memory room’. It is the home of widower Harry (Stephen Connery-Brown) and his son Jeff (Tim McFarland). Back in 1992 an audience would doubtless have expected an antagonistic scenario of mutual incomprehension between straight father and gay son, but David Stevens disarmingly and impressively defied easy assumptions and wrote a play about a relationship of deep empathy and mutual support instead. Harry not only is at ease with his twenty-something son’s sexuality but entirely laid-back to the extent of buying a selection of magazines to ensure Jeff is informed about the dangers of Aids/HIV, and welcoming his dates and one-night stands back home, sometimes to an intrusive degree.

The Sum Of Us at Above The Stag

The play falls broadly into three sections. In the first the tone is broadly comic, exploring that ‘odd couple’ groove of the pratfalls of an unexpected domestic life. In the second further characters are introduced. Both father and son are dating others, with Harry exploring possibilities through a dating agency and Jeff meetings guys at local pubs and clubs. We witness their mutually unfortunate experiences with Joyce (Annabel Pemberton) and Greg (Rory Hawkins), though the material is still played more for humour than pathos. In the final section the tone is much darker, though the ending offers some modest expectation of a positive outcome for at least two of the four.

One can imagine why and how this play had such an impact twenty-plus years ago. The play offers a proud and confident statement that gay lives concern men and women who are as deeply implicated in families as everyone else; and that those families are as much loving and supportive as atomized or dysfunctional. This subject was one that was necessary and important back then and it still is, though perhaps to a lesser extent, today. In the 90s stories were told of men taking their parents to this play as a way of coming out, and I could imagine that might still be true still, especially on a tour away from metropolitan centres.

The play contains very fine, rich, authentic passages of dialogue throughout that cover a wide emotional palette – in turn poetic, naturalistic, wryly funny and genuinely tender. The exchanges between father and son have the ease, flow and charm that would expect from this veteran screenwriter. There are several monologues dispersed throughout where the actors abandon realism, and these have a cinematic, painterly quality in the writing and in the visualization that is most impressive. They serve to underscore the mood of the writing and fill in the back-story of the characters very movingly - most especially, perhaps, the abstract account of a grieving woman on a train as a symbol of the ‘tears of things’.

The Sum Of Us at Above The Stag

The most pressing question the play raises for the reviewer is whether the sheer amount of goodness on display inhibits dramatic pace and tension. While there is real darkening sadness, particularly in the later stages, there is not much plot and you have to ask, at times, whether this is another case of heaven being boring, leaving the devil a monopoly on all the best tunes. When Greg leaves the house prematurely in the first half he complains on the way out that the atmosphere is too safely ‘domestic’, and not sexy or lively enough. Should that be our position too? When Jeff called Harry ‘the best dad’, there was a collective empathetic sigh from the audience, but was this really dramatically earned, or just part of the general feel-good tone?

On balance the play still rises above these concerns. The well-meaning empathy between the generations has its grittier side too. For example, we feel Jeff’s embarrassment at his father’s intrusion on his romantic space keenly even through the comedy, and we learn that Harry’s understanding now was not always so. There is an exceptional moment towards the end when we hear the story of Harry’s elderly mother and her long-term lesbian partner, and how hard-won at their expense his current positive engagement is.

Breaking down the fourth wall is an important part of the author’s approach in this play, but it works less well now than it would have done at the time of the first production. There is a sense, particularly early on, that this strategy is here in part to win over an original audience that might be sceptical or hostile, and that is hardly necessary now. It the one point where the play really seems dated and is a pity therefore that David Stevens has not revisited this aspect in the interim. He might perhaps instead have played around more with the time sequences, given the strengths of the monologic writing, to create and evoke contrasting moods, that would compensate for the relative lack of plot development.

The two central performances are beautifully detailed, technically sound, and very touching in execution. The two lead actors are a plausible father-son combination and each of them is very successful at conveying a fine range of emotions including frustration and incomprehension with each other, as well as abiding love.

The two smaller roles offer fewer opportunities to establish nuanced character but nevertheless the two actors take their best moments well. Pemberton has the only unsympathetic role, and if anything her portrayal underplayed the hard edges that need to be there in a play where warm empathy is the norm. She also has a powerful point to make over and above her homophobic reaction to Jeff – namely that if Harry does not share the truth of his family life with her, how can she trust him in other ways herself? Likewise Hawkins finds the physical and verbal awkwardness needed to convey the difficulty an outsider encounters in entering a cosy established domestic setting, for all of its unexpected grace.

Creative values are generally strong with particular credit going to designer David Shields for a wonderful transformation of the set in the final scene that deservedly got a round of applause and to director Gene David Kirk who used his experience from the Jermyn Street Theatre to make full use of the restricted physical space at Above the Stag.

This is a notable start to the new season and was much appreciated by a capacity audience.

THE SUM OF US RUNS AT ABOVE THE STAG UNTIL 4 OCTOBER 2015

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ABOUT BRITISHTHEATRE

BritishTheatre.com
Opening Night Media Ltd
3rd Floor, 80 St. Martin’s Lane
Covent Garden
London WC2N 4AA

The British Theatre website has been established to celebrate the rich and diverse theatrical culture of the United Kingdom.  Our ethos revolves around encouraging and nurturing the performing arts in all its forms. The spirit of theatre is very much alive and the British Theatre website is at the forefront of delivering news and information to audiences and enthusiasts everywhere. Our team of theatre journalists and reviewers are working hard to cover productions and news.


We are constantly developing the site and are always open to receiving feedback from our readers. Join our mailing list to be kept informed of all the latest news that is of interest to you..