Mr Kolpert

ATYP Studio 1, August 1

Garth Holcombe, Claire Lovering, Paige Gardiner and Tim Reuben. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Garth Holcombe, Claire Lovering, Paige Gardiner and Tim Reuben. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Would you like blood with your pizza? Mind games with your tiramisu?

German playwright David Gieselmann gives us both in his absurdist black comedy Mr Kolpert (translated by David Tushingham), which is at once provocative, stomach-churning and ridiculously funny.

Hip young couple Ralf (Tim Reuben) and Sarah (Claire Lovering) have invited Sarah’s work colleague Edith (Paige Gardiner) and her husband Bastian (Garth Holcombe) around for dinner to alleviate their boredom.

Hospitality isn’t high on their agenda. Sarah hasn’t even bothered catering, offering wine or fruit juice poppers and a choice of take-away. Instead, they intend to play cat and mouse with their guests.

At the start of the evening, they announce that they have murdered Sarah and Edith’s dull co-worker Mr Kolpert (Tom Christophersen) and stashed his body in the huge trunk in the room. Just joking! Or are they?

The build-up of tension as to whether they have or haven’t bumped off Mr Kolpert drives the play, which echoes with references to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Hitchcock’s Rope, Eugene Ionesco, Quentin Tarantino, Joe Orton and Monty Python, among others.

The play, which premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2000, has fun and games with the idea of the extreme lengths some people will go to in order to feel something, anything, in a world of existential, urban ennui; a world where an overload of graphic news reports of horrific world events, and even more graphic depictions of violence in films and video games, numbs the mind and deadens emotions. It also plugs into the anxiety of the contemporary world.

Directing the play for indie Sydney company pantsguys Productions, James Dalton draws wonderfully calibrated performances from his cast in a well-paced production that finds just the right balance between absurdist drama and dark comedy of manners.

Gardiner is exceptional as the nice, placatory Edith who discovers something altogether different beating beneath her cheery, polite demeanour. Her oscillation between hysterical laughter and terrified screams when Ralf taunts her with the ropes he supposedly tied Mr Kolpert up with is side-splittingly funny.

Holcombe is wonderfully manic as the boorish, unpredictable Bastion, an aggressive architect with anger management issues. Reuben and Lovering do a great job of keeping us guessing what Ralf (who is appropriately enough a chaos researcher) and Sarah have or haven’t done, while Edan Lacey is very funny as the hapless pizza delivery boy.

The production strikes me as funnier than I remember Benedict Andrews’ 2002 production for Sydney Theatre Company, though memory sometimes plays tricks.

The drab, beige apartment by set and costume designer Antoinette Barboutis suggests the boredom Ralf and Sarah are railing against, as well as the idea that evil can lurk in the most mundane places. Every now and then, lurid green lighting (Benjamin Brockman) as well as UV lighting, lends the space a strange, sinister feel.

Pantsguys is emerging as a reliably exciting indie company. Their previous productions include Punk Rock in 2012, which won three Sydney Theatre Awards, and On the Shore of the Wide World earlier this year, which was Griffin Independent’s top-selling production to date (both directed by Anthony Skuse). Mr Kolpert is an equally impressive production.

Running around 80 minutes without interval, the ending of the play is somewhat abrupt, a pizza-ordering scene is overdone, and Gieselmann employs some sleight-of-hand (with the knocking). It is also fairly lightweight, its theme obvious enough. But it’s a darkly entertaining, provocative piece that had the audience laughing, shrieking and squealing.

Mr Kolpert runs at the ATYP Studio I, Pier 4/5, Hickson Road until August 16. Bookings: www.atyp.com.au or 02 9270 2400

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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