Monday, March 7, 2016

Jack of Hearts by David Williamson

Craig Reucassel (Stu) and Chris Taylor (Jack)
All photos by Clare Hawley

Jack of Hearts by David Williamson.  Ensemble directed by David Williamson, at The Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, January 29 – April 2, 2016.

Stage Design – Anna Gardiner; Lighting Design – Matthew Marshall; Sound Design – Alistair Wallace.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 5

As we sat down for the second half, an intrepid patron next to me leaned ‘in’ to say (before she knew I was ‘working’) that this new play was nowhere near as good as his early plays.  “All one-liners,” she humphed.

I didn’t get the opportunity to hear what she thought at the end of the play, but I’ll write what I might have said to her.

The purpose in writing Jack of Hearts was clearly not like The Removalists, Don’s Party, The Club or Travelling North.  But I think it has much more in common with his very first full-length play, The Coming of Stork. Tim Burstall is quoted on Wikipedia, saying:

It had a kind of gaiety and brio. It was good-natured and it celebrated our own lives in a very straightforward way. It wasn't the precious or arty. It was Australian comedy of a pretty straightforward sort, but also of a pretty well-observed and accurate sort.

Perhaps Jack is not as wild as Stork.  Who could ever forget Bruce Spence and the oyster up the nose trick (especially when it was done at very close range in the Old Tote theatre!)

But what Stork did so well in representing young people in the throes of establishing and re-establishing relationships in 1967, which you might have expected from a 25-year-old recently graduated engineering student (I remember them well – the throes and the engineers), David Williamson has managed to do pretty well for the same kind of young people today – almost 50 years later.

Chris Taylor (Jack), Paige Gardiner (Emma), Brooke Satchwell (Denys), Craig Reucassel (Stu)
His pair, to begin with, of married couples, Emma (Paige Gardiner) and Jack (Chris Taylor), and Denys (pronounced Denise – Brooke Satchwell) with Stu (Craig Reucassel) are a little older than the Stork age group, but then today they would be.  And as yet none have children.  And that includes Stu’s real-estate office assistant Nikki (Isabella Tannock), and the manager of the resort on a Queensland tropical island, Kelli (Christa Nicola), where everything comes together in a most unusual way in Act Two after everything falling apart in Act One.

 The only one with children is Emma’s client (she is his Personal Trainer), Carl (Peter Mochrie), world-famous host of A Current Affair-type tv program, who she marries only to find him obsessed to the nth degree not only with his fragile position in the competitive (and beginning to lose money) tv business, but with his messed-up 26-year-old daughter about whom he talks continuously on the mobile to his ex-wife.  The daughter is the same age as Emma, who blasts him with the nine descriptors of obsessive narcissism – all of which are absolutely true of him – in a terrific scene as she leaves him.

Emma and Carl - before
Paige Gardiner and Peter Mochrie

Emma and Carl - after (or soon will be)
Paige Gardiner and Peter Mochrie
Stu and Nikki - not at a conference in Adelaide
Craig Reucassel and Isabella Tannock

The three hearts - who will draw Jack's name from the ice bucket?
Emma, Denys or Kelli?
Paige Gardiner, Brooke Satchwell, Christa Nicola

The play is a romantic comedy: everyone is happy at the end, except Carl, who was never happy in the first place.  Two babies are on the way for Denys (a bit surprisngly back with Stu) and Kelli (her second with Jack).  I did feel a little sad for Emma.  She missed out when the three women draw Jack from the ice bucket, but Emma, like Nikki, is moving on to personal success as a fully independent woman.

My informant was right about the one-liners in Act One, but it turns out this was a deliberate device.  The ‘brio’ was created by a series of very short scenes, each with its punchline, set in different locations by projections on a backdrop screen and rapid very cleverly worked out shifting of rostra blocks which made up modern-style furniture in a set of rectangular shapes which looked  to have come straight out of the latest modern home magazine.

But Act Two was different.  Now all on locations on the terribly upmarket tropical island, the scenes became extended, each involving Jack, finally employed not as the lawyer he was trained to be but couldn’t stand being, but as the guests’ luggage guy – and guess who the guests turned out to be.

But the highlight was unusual for what, on the face of it, was a standard arrangement in the centuries-old tradition of farce.  In the modern resort, the entertainment is in the modern form – a stand-up comedian.  When Kelli’s comedian turns out to be unfunny, she turns to Jack – played by none other than Chris Taylor, renowned on Radio Triple J and tv’s The Chaser’s War on Everything (also supported in the cast by his Chaser mate, Craig Reucassel as the finally chastened Stu).

Jack, from the beginning of the play, was frustrating his then wife Emma by escaping the law by trying to be ‘creative’.  So Act Two become his opportunity.  In the audience are his ex-wife Emma and Carl; his possible-wife Denys (a teacher who had been told by husband Stu that he was at a conference in Adelaide, and had accepted Jack’s invitation to stay on the island for her school holidays); and his other possible wife, his boss at the resort, Kelli; and all of us in the ‘real’ audience.

So Chris Taylor plays Jack, the up-and-coming stand-up, doing a brilliant imitation of a real stand-up in a combination of material written by David Williamson and improvised interactions with all of us.  So Jack of Hearts comes up Trumps (Donald got a mention, plus something about Tony Abbott).

Of course, my informant might still have complained about one-liners, but I thought Act Two was ace-high, especially when stand-up Jack gave us the real-estate game (to embarrass Stu and Nikki) – making up ads for properties, like the house which had been owned by a serial killer.  There was suspicion about whether some bodies might still be buried in the garden.  “Of great historical interest” came the one-liner suggestion from a real audience member.

David Williamson couldn’t have done better!

Stand-up Comedian!
Chris Taylor in Jack of Hearts