The House on the Lake

SBW Stables Theatre, May 20

Jeanette Cronin and Huw Higginson. Photo Brett Boardman

Jeanette Cronin and Huw Higginson. Photo Brett Boardman

Criminal lawyer David Rail (Huw Higginson) was supposed to be meeting his wife at their lakeside holiday home to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Instead he wakes up in a sparsely furnished hospital room with a locked door.

The last thing he remembers was working late on a brief at his office. So what happened? And how did he get here?

A psychologist called Alice (Jeanette Cronin) explains that he is displaying symptoms of a condition called anterograde amnesia, whereby he is unable to retain new memories, though his long-term memory is fine. (Guy Pearce’s character had the same condition in the film Memento).

Every 15 minutes or so, he forgets what has just happened, so as Alice works with him, they must keep starting again.

As they retrace David’s steps, teasing out fresh information, Australian playwright Aidan Fennessy weaves in new clues leading to a dark secret. To reveal any more of the plot of The House on the Lake would be a crime.

Fennessy’s taut two-hander is a gripping psychological thriller with a twisting kaleidoscope of scenes that spin around themes of lies and truth-telling as well as a trust-betrayal-revenge theory propounded by David. The fiercely articulate David, who is a great believer in logic, also (rather cockily) throws in some Edgar Allan Poe.

Fennessy’s tight script is cleverly written and feels well-researched, with the legal and psychological elements ringing true.

Kim Hardwick directs an absorbing production for Griffin Theatre Company, simply but eloquently staged on Stephen Curtis’s stark, suitably clinical, anonymous set. Martin Kinnane’s lighting and Kelly Ryall’s sound both make strong contributions to an excellent production.

Higginson is superb as David, giving a subtly shifting performance as more gradually comes to light and his condition slowly changes. Cronin offers strong support playing Alice with a brusque, inscrutable professionalism. Initially her performance feels very cold and abrupt but as the play progresses there are hints of something more.

The foyer was buzzing afterwards as people unpicked the play. Some had twigged early; others were surprised. But even if you had your suspicions about where the play was going, it didn’t spoil the experience.

Running 90-minutes, The House on the Lake is an intriguing puzzle of a play, brilliantly staged and hugely entertaining.

The House on the Lake runs at the SBW Stables Theatre until June 20. Bookings: www.griffintheatre.com.au or 02 9361 3817

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on May 24

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Unholy Ghosts

SBW Stables Theatre, August 29

James Lugton and Anna Volska. Photo: Danielle Lyonne

James Lugton and Anna Volska. Photo: Danielle Lyonne

Campion Decent’s touching autobiographical play Unholy Ghosts “tells the story of my family and our navigation of loss” as he writes in his program notes.

Effectively putting his own parents on stage, it’s no wonder he creates such vivid characters in this heartfelt yet funny three-hander in which a man known only as Son (James Lugton) tells us about the loss of his warring mother and father to cancer within seven months of each other.

Hovering beneath this is the shadow of his sister, who died 12 years ago, whose loss he still keenly feels.

Decent has the Son act as both narrator and player as he guides us from scene to scene and the emotional roller-coaster that he finds himself on.

The product of a dysfunctional family, the Son is a playwright in his 40s who lives with his male partner and their two children.

His mother (Anna Volska) is a former star of stage and radio who gave up her career for her children and has resented it ever since but whose life is still one big, grand performance. Drily witty, she smokes and drinks ferociously despite cancer riddling her body and applies lipstick liberally – even for her last rites, which is both funny and sad.

His father (Robert Alexander) is a cantankerous old grouch who has little sympathy with his son’s sexuality (describing homosexuals as “your lot”) or career choice.

There’s no love lost between the divorced pair and their Son finds himself caught in the middle as he visits them both during their illness, keen to ask questions about his parents’ damaging treatment of him as a child.

Anyone who has ever experienced the loss of a parent or someone close will find aspects of the play to relate to. The mother’s description of her frail flesh literally coming apart at the seams hit home hard for me.

All three performers are excellent. Volska, who hasn’t been on stage for around a decade, brings precision timing and a compelling mix of diva-like manipulation and charm to the role of the mother. It’s wonderful to see her back in the theatre.

Robert Alexander. Photo: Danielle Lyonne

Robert Alexander. Photo: Danielle Lyonne

Alexander is very touching as the father who wants to express regret in his dying days but must struggle to find a way, while Lugton gives a winning, truthful performance as a man torn between love and frustration, irritation and hurt, relief and fear of coming adrift.

Produced by White Box Theatre as part of Griffin Independent, Kim Hardwick directs the production with a light, understated touch and a lack of sentimentality, even as recrimination slides into redemption.

Coming toward the end, a fantasy scene set in heaven therefore feels out of place. The final scene in which the Son realises with euphoria that the family he now has is the one he has chosen – partner, children and friends – also sits slightly oddly after what has gone before but sends the audience out on a warm, fuzzy note.

On opening night I felt that the play didn’t build quite as strongly emotionally as it doubtless will (navigating the jumps between narration and scenes perhaps?) – but others apparently sobbed.

Unholy Ghosts is a lovely, heartfelt play. Decent’s script has a zing about it with big laughs as well as tears. One sentence rang out, and has echoed in my mind ever since: “We all know our parents teach us how to live, or not to live, but, of course, I realise now they also teach us how to die.”

Unholy Ghosts is at the SBW Stables Theatre until September 20. Bookings: www.griffintheatre.com.au or 02 9361 3817