‘Spencer’ was familiar.
“There’s no such thing as fun for the whole family” was the tagline of Katy Warner’s new play, ‘Spencer’ and it’s not wrong. Presented by Lab Kelpie, this punchy Australian comedy, set around family discordance, was both hilarious and a little too familiar for comfort.
As a touring production, ‘Spencer’ showcased for two performances in Brisbane before heading on its merry way to Western Australia. Given the chance for a longer run, Brisbane audiences would have snapped up this wonderful opportunity to peek at a gloriously dysfunctional Australian family. Housed in the QUT Gardens Theatre, the intimate living room styled set felt small for the broadly sized stage. Regardless, the performances penetrated the crowds and filled the space with emotion nonetheless.
As a story, audiences are welcomed into the home of the Prior family, which includes; son Scott, an up-and-coming AFL star, who’s about to meet his two-year-old son for the first time; older brother Ben, who’s words of advice contain enough punch to make a sailor blush; wayward daughter and middle sister Jules, who’s abandonment issues come to the rise; and family matriarch Marilyn, who’s the glue that has kept the family together since her husband Ian left 18-years-ago.
While our invitation into these family dynamics was quite hilarious, the arrival of father Ian throws a spanner in the works. What’s revealed was a darker storyline that explores toxic masculinity, explosive family secrets, and how sometimes walking away can be just as hurtful as if you were to return.
Lab Kelpie has presented a commendable piece of new Australian work. While the story and characters were incredibly realistic, there was little in the show that was particularly groundbreaking. This could be because, despite the wild implausibility of the play’s circumstances, the idea of a broken family finding some togetherness in their dysfunction is quite familiar to many. One could comment that this may resemble family life that’s a little too close to home.
‘Spencer’ superbly showcased Australian talent both on and off the stage. Designers Rob Sowinski and Bryn Cullen tied all aspects of the production together cohesively through a variety of famous Australian pop and rock tracks, which helped set the scene. The music blended from cover-music during a scene change, playing through the whole theatre, to playing from the onset stereo sound system, and this helped tie the play together as a whole.
As a result, the scene changes were well choreographed and expertly handled by the cast, who stayed in character, and were cleverly lit by wall lights and lamps within the room of the set. The simple living room set design featured entrances on either side, which were well used for both practical and comical effect. The room was slowly decorated throughout the play with birthday party items, finishing with the house being a massive mess of streamers and empty bottles the next morning when Scott returned and announced that Spencer has arrived.
A distraction within the piece, however, was the overused profanity throughout the show, and from all characters. While it may be representative of the Aussie vernacular, it does become tiresome and repetitive by the end of the performance. Sometimes less is more, which makes the use of a ‘swear word’ more impacting when said. Despite this, there was a tight unity amongst the cast as dialogue ebbed and flowed at a cracking pace. The performers within ‘Spencer’ demonstrated focus and polish.
The ensemble cast was excellent in their delivery of real-life characters, which one may recognise too well in their own family. Lyall Brooks as older brother Ben was hilarious in his characterisation, comic timing and ability to strut around in boxer briefs and ugg boots for most of the show. With a role that displays an extreme amount of knowledge regarding AFL, Brooks presented Ben as a loose individual with a contrasting sense of calmness that was compelling to watch.
As the prickly and smarty-pants sister, Jules, Fiona Harris brought a nice level of toughness to the role yet balanced it with a lovely dose of sensitivity, especially when conversations turned serious. Her performance landed perfectly, considering the men who filter through her life and her issues of abandonment.
Jamieson Caldwell as Scott was the perfect baby of the family, particularly aesthetically as an AFL player, and the banter between him and the other characters felt natural. Caldwell toed the balance of Scott finely showing his inner struggles with authenticity.
Jane Clifton as Marilyn was formidable and commanded the stage at all times. While her story was the most turbulent of the lot, her presentations were reasoned. Even if that meant her character was unlikeable during some parts. Roger Oakley as an absent father, Ian, was delightful in his inappropriate timings, and his cheekiness with Marilyn showed his flippant nature.
Under the direction of Sharon Davis, ‘Spencer’ bounded along with a story full of highs and lows and portrayed some real Aussie truths. Serious but not too stern, this play packed a lot, which ultimately resonated with audience members.
For Australian theatre, It is always wonderful to see national producers supporting local playwrights and investing in touring productions that visit beyond the traditional art hubs and into Queensland. Lab Kelpie is an institution that continues to commission, develop, produce, and tour new Australian works, something that is much needed in our cultural landscape.
‘Spencer’ performed at the QUT Gardens Theatre. For more information on Lab Kelpie’s touring productions visit Lab Kelpie’s Website.