Friday, August 7, 2020

Brighton Beach Memoirs

Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon.

Directed by Karen Vickery.

Canberra Repertory. Canberra REP Theatre, Acton. July 30 – Aug 15.

By Alanna Maclean

CANBERRA REP has come back to welcome life with a socially distancing (and now sold out) season of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach memoirs. There are notices on seats that are not to be used and the spacing out of an audience is disturbing. But none of that stopped a positive opening night response to the touching and funny story of the Jerome family in 1937’s New York, which is given an insightful production under Karen Vickery’s perceptive direction.

Kate Jerome (Victoria Tyrrell Dixon) her husband Jack (Paul Sweeney) and their two sons share a small house with Kate’s widowed sister Blanche (Amy Crawford) and her two daughters, Nora (Caitlin Baker) and Laurie (Ella Buckley). Living space is crowded and work is tight. People are battling to survive. There are struggles to earn enough money and the suggestion that Nora take up an offer to audition for a Broadway show is treated as the pathway to uncertainty; better that she finish high school. Her sister Laurie is growing up fast but has health problems, as does her still grieving mother. Older son Stan (James McMahon) is faced with having to apologise to his boss or lose his much needed employment. Patriarch Jack juggles more than one job. And out of Europe come the pre war rumblings. They are Jewish and there is still family in Poland.

Jamie Boyd as Eugene

All of this is narrated by younger son Eugene, in a sunny and authoritative performance by Jamie Boyd, that drives the show along as the boy’s understanding of things deepens. He’s still not an adult by the end but he might be on the way. In fact there is not a weak performance among the cast and the teamwork is quite superb.

Whether it’s McMahon’s Stan trying to guide his younger brother or Sweeney as father Jack balancing his crippling working life with his faith or the growing pains of Baker and Buckley’s Nora and Laurie or the powerful treatment given by Tyrrell Dixon and Crawford to the inevitable grand row between Kate and Blanche, there’s integrity in the work.

Chris Baldock’s set creates the claustrophobia of shared bedrooms and steep stairs and mean streets outside and there on the door frame is the mezuzah, the prayer scroll that is touched whenever someone in the family enters the house. (Think 1959’s Ben Hur, which underlines the importance of family and faith with a similar repeated image) Anna Senior’s muted costume designs echo the downstairs wall’s red pattern with the splendid red coat brought out by Blanche as she hopefully readies to go on her first date since the death of her husband.

This 1983 play has dated somewhat in its approach to Eugene’s sexual explorations. But it has heart and humour and a very real sense of family arguments. Will Blanche marry again? Will relatives arrive from Poland? Will the family survive the coming war? Well, it’s Neil Simon so you can bet the outcomes will be bittersweet. 

Photo by Helen Drum