Friday, December 19, 2014

Unwrap Me presented by Budding Theatre

Unwrap Me presented by Budding Theatre ( at Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre December 18-20, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 18

In an enjoyable Christmas evening of 10 short plays, the appropriately named Kirsty Budding has presented work by 10 budding new, emerging, up and coming, or somewhat more emerged playwrights.  Based on the now well-established Short + Sweet concept, the writers’ brief was to begin with the stage direction: [A character] enters carrying a Christmas present.

During interval, an essential element of the Christmas theme of giving was a raffle of wine and a Christmas hamper donated by local businesses, and the auction of a framed Unwrap Me poster signed by all the 30 or more cast members, which on opening night sold for $100.  The money raised from box office and the auction was donated to Medecins Sans Frontieres and World Animal Protection.

In general the pieces were absurdist and humorous, reminding me of earlier times in Canberra watching Elbow Theatre, Bohemian Theatre or Freshly Ground Theatre, but without those groups' emphasis on being conscientiously avant gardeUnwrap Me is relaxed fun.  Yet there were some pieces which, in about 10 minutes, developed substantial themes and characterisation.

The evening was never competitive – quite the opposite, in fact.  It was a Christmas celebration of minimalist staging – a desk, a sofa, a dead body in the empty space beside an ubiquitous Christmas Tree, enhanced by a very effective sound track collection of modern urban pop.  But here are my comments on each author’s approach, in order of presentation.

Tom Green’s The Christmas Pitch has Santa and his Elf off-sider present a bank manager with a business plan to spend $30 billion on giving away presents all over the world: not for profit but simply for the sake of doing good.  The idea is fun for ten minutes, but the script tails off rather than coming up with a good strong punch line.

The Cat and the Cigarette by Grace De Morgan turns the apparent gift of a possibly dead cat into a metaphor for the insecurity of being in love.  The end, though, from a serious point of view, is sentimental.  So it’s a clever idea, but we are not sure of how we are to take the humour.

Nigel Palfreman, in I ♥ Alex Solomon, takes up the theme of male sexual competition expressed in the gift that Alex gives Claire, and Paul’s angry jealousy.  The plot and dialogue have no subtlety, so we are not sure if we are to find the situation funny or to seriously take sides.  It certainly seemed a bleak view of Christmas cheer.

John Lombard’s The Holiday on December 25th is a very different kettle of fish.  What if, taking the view that gift-giving at Christmas and birthdays is just crass commercialism, you bring up your child so that she is not aware that these occasions are celebrated, or that they even exist to be celebrated?  What happens when, at the age of 25, your daughter Becky Givings, becomes suspicious about the total coverage of Christmas decorations, jingles and adverts and Mrs Givings is forced to come clean?  Very cleverly, Lombard’s script takes us through the funny side as we see Becky’s dawning recognition that her mother has deceived her, yet in the ten minutes allows us to accept their reconciliation.  Only then as Becky leaves happy and Mr Givings arrives, we get the punchline which brings Mr and Mrs back together.  He may not be happy with, but has to accept, his wife’s breaking of the secret about Christmas: “But it’s just as well she doesn’t know about birthdays!”

The strength in the writing here is in the genuine motivations of the characters, the humour we find in their dilemmas, and the recognition of an issue which many families take seriously. In ten minutes there is a complete dramatic structure built before our very eyes.

Christmas with Carroll is anything but a pleasant occasion for an uplifting song.  Youthful Carroll’s hatred of being obliged to attend the family Christmas with all the oldies turns into a story of revenge.  There is a logic to the plot which leads to more than just black humour.  The humour of degustation and disgust in this surprising play by Tahlee Fereday from Darwin is both excruciatingly funny and awful to watch as Carroll’s revenge bites back and spews forth – all over her.

Chris Naylor’s A Christmas Body, after interval, drinks and the auction had revived our equanimity, was a nice simple and pleasantly amusing episode.  The author’s interpretation of the injunction in the writers’ brief about carrying a Christmas present was a practical joke on us, as was the dead body’s behaviour a practical joke on his hosts at their Christmas dinner.  There are no other significant implications in this play, but we didn’t need depth at this point in the evening.

But we couldn’t relax for long.  Original Sinners by Kirsten Lovett from Queensland is a highly abstract meeting of a mystical Australian bush woman, which in Biblical terms might be Lilith (as in George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methusaleh), though here she is named Pandora (as in Pandora’s box, perhaps), with a man – a stranger in her desert country, dressed in a city-style business suit, perhaps referencing Cain who killed his brother Abel and representing criminality and corruption.  Perhaps, on this Christmas day, he seeks redemption and some kind of reconciliation and solace.  She will only tell her story if he repays her by telling his story.  They reach a kind of peace in the telling, as the image of their existence fades away.

For a ten minute piece, this is quite unusual and even disturbing, and suggests an interesting future for this new writer who grew up in Cairns.

Kirsty Budding herself wrote No Room at the Inn, which seems to be about the children of a kind of a dysfunctional Addams Family.  Will they all be allowed to go to the family gathering on Christmas Day?  James is gay, and will not go without his father’s acceptance of his love for Lucas.  Helen is thoroughly imbued with a kind of jealousy because James came out before she could make it clear that she is gay, too.  Gollum, hidden in the back room, is a kind of maniacal throwback to a mythical apelike state, who reveals three virtually naked young men in a procession from his room and off stage behind the Christmas tree.  The present which begins this mayhem is brought by Lucas for the unappreciative Helen – a large ball-shaped gift which is never revealed.

Somewhere in all this is an absurdist satire of the conventions of Christmas family gatherings – funny but weird.  I guess there would not be room for any of these children at their family’s “inn”.

Perhaps this play was the nearest to the early Bohemians (later Boho) Theatre style ( .

The Price of Balloons is a much more conventional play by Disapol Savetsila from University of Wollongong.  A young woman’s father insists in giving her presents, while she knows that he is not well off.  She sells his latest gift (of a fascinating balloon which has several other inflated balloons inside) to a passer by who has forgotten to buy a gift for his daughter.  She negotiates a very high price as the passer by has no other chance to buy a gift before catching his train.  When her father returns she insists on giving him the money which he can’t afford not to take, though he is devastated by her selling of his gift.

We are left feeling in two minds about what she has done, and in empathy with the father’s dilemma.  The play leaves us forced to consider what is the true nature of a gift.

Finally, the evening ended with perhaps the best written script: Sexy Beth’s Giant Dildo Collection by Canberra-based Greg Gould.  His career so far has been almost entirely centred on writing ten-minute plays, performed in Australia and overseas, with considerable success in short play competitions including Short + Sweet here, in New Zealand and Dubai.

Beth and Dale are moving into an upstairs flat.  Dale labels the biggest box of their belongings “Sexy Beth’s Giant Dildo Collection”, to Beth’s horror since her father has carried it up when he arrived unexpectedly to help.  She fears that her father, who she believes is already unhappy with her relationship with Dale, will think of her as sexually depraved.  She sees herself and her family as conventionally nice.  Dale’s joke may divide her from her family.

However when she leaves Dale to face her father, it turns out that he regales Dale with his stories of the “free love” period of his life in the 1960s, leaving the young Dale amazed, but now able to relieve Beth’s anxiety and finish the play on a positive note.

The quality of the writing is in the immediately established genuineness of the feelings and motivations of each of the characters, our easy acceptance of the situation as it seems to trend in its different directions, and our recognition of the issue of generational differences.  In its ten minutes, we see that instant judgement and assumptions are a danger we should be careful to avoid.

Reviewing 10 plays in one evening is quite a task, but well worth doing in this case because I think Budding Theatre is a valuable new development in Canberra.  Unwrap Me has drawn writers and actors from Canberra, Sydney, Adelaide, Darwin, Cairns, Wollongong, Goulburn, with experience and training backgrounds around Australia and overseas.  Budding’s idea to take the Short + Sweet (and the school level Fast + Fresh) competition into a non-competitive evening show has worked well, with an enthusiastic response from the audience on opening night.  There’s at least an annual event for Christmas in the making, and perhaps for other significant times in the year.