Four Flat Whites in Italy by Roger Hall. Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre at The Street, Canberra. October 25-29, 2011.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
It’s a nice play, like Mrs Worthington’s daughter, “But,” as Noel Coward sang, “Mrs Worthington, dear Mrs Worthington, don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington.” I don’t mean the actors shouldn’t have been on the stage last night, but the author has some questions to answer.
Every play has a context within which it might be judged. Having just seen the so much cleverer Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, I can’t help thinking Roger Hall needs some critical advice. However worthy, he’s a Kiwi who shouldn’t go out in the midday sun without a proper pith helmet.
My reason for taking such a critical position – rather than simply saying that this production is as entertaining as one would normally expect from Ensemble Theatre – is reading commentary in NZ Herald TV like ‘Rather than batting away the question of whether he sees himself as New Zealand's greatest playwright, he considers it through a rational commercial lens. "The merit or otherwise of my plays aside, I've written more plays and fed more into the box office than any other New Zealand playwright."’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlfVahGfutE, while elsewhere the idea has been put around that Roger Hall is New Zealand’s David Williamson.
Though I have at times been critical of Williamson’s penchant for one liner comedies, Four Flat Whites in Italy can’t be compared with, say, Travelling North, which also deals with an older couple rediscovering the truth in their relationship in making a change. On the other hand, if Four Flat Whites is meant to be no more than light comedy, it hasn’t the delicate touch of a Noel Coward play like, say, Private Lives which has a similar pair of couples format.
Hall makes his themes – nowadays called ‘tropes’, I guess – far too explicit by using the husband Adrian as both commentator on and participant in the action. Sandra Bates as director and Michael Ross, the actor, handle this as well as the script allows, but you only have to look at Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie to see how it should be done. The problem here is that Adrian’s action in the past (falling asleep at the wheel and causing his and Alison’s daughter’s paraplegia and early death) is so central to the serious side of the play that it is embarrassing to have Adrian speak directly to the audience in comedy mode.
Because we see Alison – played very well by Sharon Flanagan with the full depth of the emotions resulting from her reaction to her life as Joanna’s carer – as a realistic character coming to terms with tragedy, it is difficult to know how to respond to the revival of her love for Adrian who, to us, has been outside the story as much as inside. The dance under the stars at the end, to me at least, became a simplistic sentimental romance conclusion which undermined the reality of Alison’s experience, while apparently her forgiving Adrian simply lifted all guilt and emotional weight from his shoulders. All too easy, for my liking.
The other themes, of wealth, of political positioning, of being Kiwi, of realising that someone else needs a bit of help when life has treated them unfairly, are all embedded in the other two characters. Henri Szeps and Mary Regan play Harry and his second wife Judy skilfully and to great comic effect as well as neatly handling the change of attitude towards Alison and Adrian as they discover more about Joanna’s life and death.
Yet these characters are there as ciphers, obviously symbolising points that the author wants to include in the play that New Zealanders will respond to. The success of the play at home, and the recognition by the audience on opening night here of the right times to laugh, showed that Hall has found his marks.
It was a bit problematical last night, though, that in real life the All Blacks had just beaten France and won the World Cup, when in the play, set in 2007, France had just beaten the All Blacks in a quarter-final and the Kiwis were in mourning for the loss. Perhaps this affected my response to the scene watching the rugby. Though the actors did it all very well, it went on far too long for me, watching their reactions to a screen I couldn’t see. Maybe this was a case where multi-media could have been used and we could all have seen famous footballers flailing in the face of French infallibility.
So though the night was enjoyable, I can’t say it was fully satisfying. Perhaps it’s being too harsh to say that, like Mrs Worthington’s daughter, it shouldn’t be on the stage. But it does seem to me not to be a play of the same standing as Neil Simon or David Williamson who have been a standard for Ensemble Theatre over the years.
Those readers who are probably much younger than me (or perhaps you’ve just lost your memory) can see a fair representation of Mrs Worthington by Fenton Gray at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=RA8XKb8OFfA (Uploaded by FentonGray on 16 May 2010)
and, though I think you will have to buy Coward’s original recording of this song, you can watch him singing others (like Mad Dogs and Englishmen) in his inimitable impeccable style at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=1ccGh8-Ipww (Noel Coward's first television appearance! Uploaded by kitschbitch on 4 Feb 2007).