‘Challenges’ // Ipswich Little Theatre

‘Challenges’ was diverse.

An in-house one act play festival can easily be seen as the least important event on a Theatre’s calendar. This is because they generally aren’t as well supported by audiences as full length productions. It wouldn’t be entirely unreasonable to assume that, as one-act plays are typically not as well-known as full length ones, they are less likely to attract bigger audiences. A production team may therefore not devote as much effort to such a festival and an audience, sensing this, may in turn be put off. Thus, a cycle is born and the plays themselves tend to suffer as a result.

Happily, however, Ipswich Little Theatre’s one-act play season did not seem to suffer this eternal curse; the cosy, unique space was full with attentive attendees and the passion the creative teams had for the works onstage was clear. The atmosphere here is one of joy, comradery and a love of theatre.

The festival was structured effectively, with an engaging balance of styles that conducted the audience’s response. The separate plays were supposedly linked together by the concept of ‘challenges’, though it’s hard to imagine any play that wouldn’t fit this broad motif.

The first play was ‘Bubbles’, by Tara Routley (Adams). As the curtain opened, it looked like a safe, generational three-hander that audiences familiar with one-act plays have probably come to accept as standard: three suburban Australians talking about housework and how things were “when I was your age”. But it wasn’t. Rather, it was an unexpectedly confronting story that starkly reflected the core of the human condition. The audience, it is safe to say, was not prepared. The three women of the realist drama were daughter, mother and grandmother, played with truth bubbling under the surface of each actress to be unleashed a key moments to skewer the hearts of the audience.

The story was a simple one. Middle-aged Pam takes care of her elderly mother who suffers from dementia and has been deteriorating steadily. Pam spends most of her time awaiting contact from her daughter Kate. Kate, a schoolteacher who works three hours away but is hoping for a transfer somewhere closer, softly recommends to her mum that Gran probably needs round-the-clock, professional care. And that’s really all there was to this simple yet poignant story. The truth of the writing suggests the play is autobiographical and certainly tearful audience members seemed to be seeing themselves in at least one of these characters.

As Gran, Di Johnston was so carefully attuned to her role (despite playing a few decades older than she surely is) that her nuances and gestures represented not just a grandmother, but grandmotherdom itself. Her performance enthralled. Most gripping, however, was a silent moment in which Pam (played admirably by Julie-Anne Wright) sat on the coffee table, clutching a pillow and looking at nothingness through tear-stained eyes, surrendering to her own inevitable human limitations.

In almost jarring but desperately needed contrast, ‘All By Myself’ by Robert Scott followed, telling the story of Larry, a shipwreck survivor marooned on a desert island for the past seven years. In a melodramatic, faux-Shakespearean monologue he laments his loneliness and isolation only to discover that a society of other shipwrecked souls lives just up the hill, but had never made contact because they assumed Larry was shy. The premise is delightfully ridiculous. The timing of this short comedy was refined and built at a wonderful pace as Larry’s fellow castaways introduced him to the various aspects of their nonsensically bureaucratic way of life.

The standout performers were Courtney Murrin, who commanded every inch of the stage as Larry’s laid-back antithesis, Pemberton, and Larry himself, played by Cody Muller, who wrung meaning, sincerity and comedy from every line of the tight script. Muller seems to have the intuition and awareness of a highly-accomplished actor and he is certainly reason enough to return to this venue for any other show in which he may appear.

The final play of the evening ‘Farmer Will Swap Combine Harvester For Wife’, told the story of, well, just that. This bizarre premise sees Cyril, a middle-aged farmer, desperate to raise children before it’s too late advertise for a wife in the local paper. Skye, a young woman with a baby, arrives to take him up on the offer. The play seemed harmless enough for the most part once the premise was swallowed. The jokes were delivered well and the characters were engaging. But when a domestic violence subplot comes seemingly out of nowhere in the middle of what is ostensibly a comedy of both errors and manners, the mood was a little muddied.

There’s not a way to make domestic violence funny, and whilst the play certainly didn’t try to do this, it was hard to buy into gags that came immediately before or after monologues detailing a young mother’s emotional abuse. Still, the scenes were well-handled by an eclectic mix of actors who were in tune with their audience and invited them into this world with a pleasant wickedness that poked fun at some iconic elements of Australian culture. Jo Robbins as Delmay was a standout, effectively balancing her role as the downtrodden punchline of many gags as well as the a powerful conduit of the play’s more engaging dramatic moments.

Seeing a theatre pour so much into its one-act play festival should indicate the passion these creatives have for their wider season. Although ‘Challenges’ has now closed, Ipswich Little Theatre has a promising full calendar ahead.

For more information and ticketing, visit http://www.ilt.org.au.

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