Friday, February 21, 2020

Crunch Time

John Wood and Guy Edmonds

Crunch Time by David Williamson. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, February 19 – April 9, 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 19

Director – Mark Kilmurry; Set and Costume Designer – Lauren Peters; Lighting Designer – Nicholas Higgins; Sound Realiser – Anthony Lorenz

Cast (alphabetical)
Diane Craig (Helen); Megan Drury (Susy); Guy Edmonds (Luke); Matt Minto (Jimmy); Emma Palmer (Lauren); John Wood (Steve)

Photos by Prudence Upton

Diane Craig and John Woods
as Helen and Steve
in Crunch Time by David Williamson
Ensemble Theatre 2020

Crunch Time is a quite harsh-sounding title for a realistic study of generational succession told with some tenderness and humour.  Perhaps, since the author has announced that, after 50 years, this is definitely to be his last play, he may be sensing a Sword of Damocles descending. 

That’s certainly the feeling David Williamson has given Steve, as he retires, when he has to decide which son – the younger Jimmy with a Business Management degree; or the elder Luke with a combined Engineering/Law degree – will be given control of his highly successful engineering company.  The complex intra-family relationships are played out very well indeed by John Wood, Matt Minto and Guy Edmonds – the  father, himself trained as an engineer and somewhere on ‘the spectrum’, knowing that Jimmy’s social communication skills are essential for the continuing and expanding success of the company, cuts the highly intelligent but also autistic Luke off the Board.

Steve married Helen because he was fascinated by her playing the cello – the Goldmark Variations – when they were students.  Diana Craig’s playing on stage at the key moment of tenderness is a highlight. But, she points out, the Goldmark is the only piece of music – and indeed the only work of art of any kind – that Steve can recognise.

Diane Craig and Megan Drury
as Helen and Susy

Megan Drury playing Jimmy’s wife Susy (they have three children) gives us the most rational clear-sighted character in the play, recognising how she was so attracted to Jimmy – and why so many other women were and still are; and how she can become a genuine friend for Luke while they supervise their combined grandchildren.  Though Jimmy says he will “never do it again”, we laugh with Susy and recognise her right to independence.

Megan Drury and Matt Minto
as Susy and Jimmy

Susy also explains to Luke how being ‘ordinary’ is the right thing for him, even though Emma Palmer as Luke’s wife, Lauren, can’t stand his insistence on being himself, which means stating with great accuracy every truth, about her and everything else, any more.  So she leaves the children to him to find a less ‘ordinary’ life.

Emma Palmer and Guy Edmonds
as Lauren and Luke

Guy Edmonds and Megan Drury
as Luke and Susy

Of course, rumours will abound that David Williamson has finally written an autobiographical play, since he originally trained and even lectured as an engineer, and finally married a writer (they met in 1971) who is quoted on the ABC in 2009: “And Kristin says their blended family - two of her children with her ex-husband, two from David's first marriage and one mutual child ('They call him the love child') - cringe at their bohemian tales.”
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It is true that this play’s family relationships feel to me more personal in nature, but then I have reviewed formally only about a dozen of his more than fifty plays.  It is the character of Steve, facing up to serious adversity, that brings up those feelings.  John Wood’s performance is so much deeper than being a character who represents a man of a particular place and time.  Whereas in the past I have seen Williamson’s work as highly valuable “comedy of manners” social commentary, this play – not only in Steve, but especially in Guy Edmond’s Luke and Megan Drury’s Suzy – shows psychological understanding of a different order, I think.

Of the playwriting and production, I suspect there is more development work to do.  It may be Williamson’s last play, but perhaps he may not retire absolutely yet.  The performance by Diane Craig of Steve’s wife Helen needed to create much more empathy in us, watching.  The clue, for me, was in the question on how Steve had rated Jimmy at 10, but Luke at only 8.5; while Luke had rated his father at only 2, but his mother at 10.

As a fly-on-the-wall audience member, I wanted to rate Helen at 10 but she came through to me at about 6.  Yet at the every end, she completely unexpectedly reveals her ‘bad girl’ behaviour before meeting Steve – her bohemian tale, I guess.  It’s either in the writing, or maybe in the directing, but Diane Craig’s performance needed to establish that aspect of Helen’s character – the liveliness and warmth it implies – from early in the play.

I also think that, in the directing, and perhaps because of the writing, the first several scenes lost focus and energy because they come through as not much more than exposition.  They tell us bits of the story, but it’s not until maybe 20 minutes in that our attention begins to become focussed, and therefore engaged, in the feelings of the characters as they interact.  Then we begin to work out for ourselves what is now and has been going on between these people.  The backstory needs to grow out of the immediate present, from the very first scene.

It was, of course, a great privilege to be present on the opening night of the last play of what I can only call (awfully) an ‘iconic’ Australian playwright.  I deliberately have not given away too much here, because it’s important for me not to preempt your expectations.  There’s a depth of humanity in this play which should catch you by surprise.

I think, finally, it’s not unreasonable to point out the role of the Ensemble Theatre’s relationship with David Williamson, and especially his relationship with Sandra Bates, who first attended the classes of the Ensemble’s founder, Hayes Gordon, in 1968, and was invited by him to become artistic director of the company in 1986. 

Since 1995 Ensemble Theatre has staged “24 Williamson plays…including 19 world premieres, and produced three national tours.”  Sandra Bates herself directed 15 of these in the boatshed in-the-round, beginning with Emerald City, as well as additionally directing the three plays, Face to Face, A Conversation and Charitable Intent in the Jack Manning Trilogy at The Concourse, in Chatswood in 2014, before handing over the artistic directorship to Mark Kilmurry in 2016.

David Williamson has written on her retirement: "The Ensemble Theatre and I have had a very fruitful relationship now for many years.  I love this little theatre and I love the philosophy that guides it and that philosophy has been driven for over thirty years now by one remarkable woman, Sandra Bates. 

“Her philosophy of theatre is disarmingly simple.  Program contemporary plays from Australia, America and elsewhere that have something to say to contemporary society.  Program plays that tell a strong story that impacts on the audience rather than plays consumed by their own cleverness that few relate to or understand.  Plays of emotional impact that tell stories about real people facing real and pressing problems.

“The Ensemble is a theatre in which storytelling about contemporary society comes first and that's what I love about it.”


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Emma Palmer as Lauren