Thursday, February 5, 2015

Mother and Son by Geoffrey Atherden

Mother and Son (stage play) by Geoffrey Atherden.  Produced by Spencer McLaren, Dean Murphy and Joseph Thomsen.  Directed by Roger Hodgman; lighting by Nigel Levings; set design by Shaun Gurton; costumes by Esther Marie Hayes.  Canberra Theatre, February 4 – 7, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 4

Maggie doesn't need Vitamin B: her memory's perfect!
Rachael Beck as Anita, Noeline Brown as Maggie Beare, Darren Gilshenan as Arthur

Would you have passed this test?  Mrs Beare says she is good at tests and hopes to pass this one.  How about you?

Aged Care Assessment Test Question: Mrs Beare.  Can you tell me who the Prime Minister is?
Mrs BeareIs he still there?
TesterI’m not sure.  I think so.  Can you tell me his name?
Mrs Beare: flaps her hands in a gesture of faint despair, and changes the subject, as the Canberra audience erupts in raucous laughter.

Mrs Beare passed with flying colours.

As you can see, Geoffrey Atherden has re-worked his 1984-94 ABC TV series to bring it up to date.  The characters of Maggie Beare, her carer son Arthur, and her profligate dentist (but favoured) son, Robert, remain much the same, but they now live in the modern technological world.  Mobile phones, very suspect rip-off call centres, and Skype play a major role in this comedy, taking it a little nearer to social satire in its two hours on the stage compared to the 22 minute episodes (according to Wikipedia) of the original sitcom.

I guess it’s more common for novels and stage plays to be turned into movies.  I had my doubts about making a television production into a play.  But in a very short while I had forgotten that I wasn’t watching Ruth Cracknell, Garry MacDonald, Henri Szeps and Judy Morris.  Noeline Brown, Darren Gilshenan, Rob Carleton and Nicki Wendt became Maggie, Arthur, Robert, and Robert’s wife Liz in their own right, in the company of Rachael Beck as Arthur’s new-found love, Anita; Robyn Arthur as Maggie’s new-found friend at the respite centre, Monica; and Sharon Davis as Karen, the Aged Care Assessment tester.  On Skype we met Robert and Liz’s charming children, Dylan Redman as Jarrod Beare and Jade Redman as Bronte Beare.

I have to admit I didn’t watch all the ten years’ worth of episodes, partly because although each viewing was enjoyable in itself and there were always little unexpected surprises, there was an inevitable degree of predictability.  You could miss an episode, or even many episodes, without losing anything crucial.  After all, that's how television works.

I found the full-length play more engaging, not just because the situations were funny but because of the ingenuity of the twists and turns in the plot which had to reach two climactic points, and find a satisfactory conclusion.  Atherden showed his skills as a writer as we left Act 1 for interval wondering if Maggie was dead and what on earth could happen next, and then being taken to the point of apparent inevitable failure for Arthur in Act 2. 

But then this Arthur, through the influence of the smart and enthusiastic Anita, who is the carer for her disabled brother, works his way out of his old tendency to give up on his mother in frustration.  He uses a subterfuge - a letter supposedly written to Maggie by his dying father - which is at once a trick and yet is also a moral act seeking a resolution which brings out Arthur's love and respect for his mother and solves the problem of her future care. 

It is the development in Arthur’s understanding which makes his relationship with Maggie at last positive instead of potentially destructive.  And all this is done by Atherden cleverly drawing on the humour of the situation.

The actors received the lengthy enthusiastic applause that they deserved, while I would add special recognition for Shaun Gurton’s clever set design.

Any doubts I had brought with me were gone long before Act 1 ended.  Atherden and his director, cast and crew certainly passed their test, even as Mrs Beare passed hers.

Nicki Wendt as Robert's long-suffering wife, Liz Beare
Arthur realises he must confront his dishonest brother, Robert
L to R: Rob Carleton as Robert Beare, Noeline Brown as Maggie Beare, Darren Gilshenan as Arthur Beare
Success at last for Arthur
Noeline Brown as Maggie Beare, Darren Glishenan as Arthur Beare

Footnote.  It is very disappointing not to have a printed program for people to have in hand on the night.  Although you can find information about the cast and creatives on the net at, there is no context for the production, beyond a brief run-down of the plot.  Director’s and author’s notes in a program are valuable for audience members, not only as guides to a greater appreciation of the play, but at least as a physical memento of their visit to the theatre.  Producers, please note.