Cruise Control

Ensemble Theatre, April 30

Clockwise from back left, Helen Dallimore, Henri Szeps, Kate Fitzpatrick, Felix Williamson, Michelle Doake and Peter Phelps. Photo: Clare Hawley

Clockwise from back left, Helen Dallimore, Henri Szeps, Kate Fitzpatrick, Felix Williamson, Michelle Doake and Peter Phelps. Photo: Clare Hawley

Inspired by a transatlantic cruise that he and his wife took, David Williamson’s latest comedy Cruise Control features three incompatible couples, each hoping to resolve their relationship issues on a luxury cruise, who find themselves having to share a dinner table every night.

There’s Richard (Felix Williamson), a failed British novelist who is arrogant, abusive and a compulsive womaniser, and his long-suffering wife Fiona (Michelle Doake), a successful publisher.

Joining them are elderly New York Jewish periodontist Sol (Henri Szeps) and his bored wife Silky (Kate Fitzpatrick) who spends his money freely while constantly undermining him, along with Australians Darren (Peter Phelps), a Bra Boy who manufactures surf wear, and his gorgeous wife Imogen (Helen Dallimore) who was “cut and polished” at Ascham.

Looking after them is Filipino waiter Charlie (Kenneth Moraleda), who is just happy to be providing for his much-loved family.

The first act is an entertaining comedy of manners as Williamson establishes the characters and the spiky dynamics between them. But in the second act some of the steam goes out of the play with a few fairly unconvincing plot turns and a lack of any real tension as things begin to feel predictable.

The final tying up of the light-weight plot is somewhat contrived and spelling out what happens to Richard at the end feels unnecessarily tacked on.

Williamson directs the play himself and keeps the action moving fluidly on Marissa Dale-John’s cleverly compact set, which certainly captures the world of a cruise ship. In the naturalistic setting, it’s odd though (and distracting) to see the actors “pouring” pretend wine into cheap plastic glasses.

The play is well performed by the strong cast. Felix Williamson gives a darkly entertaining performance as the irredeemably unlikeable Richard, Phelps brings just the right swagger to the tough, tattooed Darren, Dallimore shines as the voluptuous Imogen who is frustrated by her husband’s lack of attention, Doake is also very good as the put-upon, kindly Fiona, Fitzpatrick nails many of the biggest laughs as the elegant, bored Silky, Szeps is touching as Sol (though he was a little hesitant with some of his lines on opening night), and Moraleda injects some welcome heart as Charlie.

Though Cruise Control isn’t as gripping as it clearly aims to be, and peters out towards the end, there are some very funny lines, some astute observations and some poignant moments.

Cruise Control runs at the Ensemble Theatre until June 14. All performances are sold out so three new performances have been added at The Concourse, Chatswood on June 24 & 25. Bookings: http://www.ensemble.com.au or 02 9929 0644 or http://www.ticketek.com.au or 1300 795 012

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on May 4

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On the Shore of the Wide World

SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney, January 13

Huw Higginson and Amanda Stephens-Lee. Photo: Rebecca Martin

Huw Higginson and Amanda Stephens-Lee. Photo: Rebecca Martin

In 2012, Anthony Skuse directed pantsguys Productions’ award-winning indie production of Punk Rock, written in 2009 by UK playwright Simon Stephens.

Now, Skuse directs Stephens’ 2005 play On the Shore of the Wide World for pantsguys and Griffin Independent – and it’s another memorable production.

Set in Stephens’ native Stockport, a town in Greater Manchester, the play tells the story of three generations of the suffering Holmes family over the course of nine months.

Peter (Huw Higginson) and Alice (Amanda Stephens-Lee) are muddling along OK but are hurt and upset when their teenage son Alex (Graeme McRae) and his new girlfriend, the spunky Sarah (Lily Newbury-Freeman), want to escape to London. Meanwhile, their sweet but odd younger son Christopher (Alex Beauman) is instantly smitten with Sarah.

Living nearby are Peter’s alcoholic father Charlie (Paul Bertram), who has a close relationship with his grandsons, Christopher in particular, and Charlie’s nervous wife Ellen (Kate Fitzpatrick).

Christopher catches his grandparents unawares one day and is rocked. Then a sudden tragedy forces buried emotions, shame, secrets and regrets to the fore and the family find themselves confronting and opening up to each other as they struggle to find a way to move forward together.

Running three hours including interval, the first act is a slow burn but the second act flies as the emotion builds.

Skuse directs a quiet, beautifully measured, subtle production, in which the actors often stay on stage to watch scenes they aren’t in, the compassion in their eyes intensifying the emotion.

There are excellent performances all round from a cast that also includes Jacob Warner as Alex’s drug-dealing friend Paul, Emma Palmer as a comparatively posh, pregnant publisher who employs Peter to renovate her home and develops quite a bond with him, and Alistair Wallace as John who meets Alice as a result of the tragedy.

Higginson (well-known from ten years playing PC George Garfield in The Bill) is a stand-out though with a heartbreakingly portrayal of the loving but emotionally inarticulate Peter. An engrossing, moving drama.

On the Shore of the Wide World runs at the SBW Stables Theatre until February 1. Bookings: www.griffintheatre.com.au or 02 9361 3817

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 19