‘First Things First’ was nostalgic.
Well, first things first – it’s wonderful to see community theatre returning to the stage. Sunnybank Theatre Group has welcomed patrons back to their venue, with their latest production of Derek Benfield’s ‘First Things First’. With positivity in the air, it was delightful to see the community come out in force for a Sunday matinee performance. This community spirit gave the right kind of contagious feeling, which was spread from within the Sunnybank Theatre’s Greenroom and onto the stage.
Marking the third production in their 2021 season, ‘First Things First’ is a full-length comedy where love and marriage become wildly and hilariously complicated. Pete (Brad Oliver) is happily married to Sarah (Lesley Davis), until his best mate, George (Nathaniel Young) delivers the news that Pete’s ex-wife, Jessica (Jessica Heinemann) is in fact alive and well. She hadn’t been killed in the climbing accident as they had thought. Making matters even worse, Jessica is on her way to Pete’s house to rekindle their romance. With a title that literally implies setting priorities straight, ‘First Things First’ bounces between white lies, absurd comedy and unusual surprises.
Benfield, who wrote more than 30 stage plays including the infamous ‘Bedside Manners’ found fame in the UK television series, ‘The Brothers’ in the early 1970s. His script, ‘First Things First’, came at the later stages of his career and is a classic interpretation of the British farce. While the plot is ridiculous in nature, it does have a lot of repetition in the dialogue, which makes action and storyline quite predictable. Also, the references in the play make things feel quite dated and problematic, especially in the current climate – i.e., references to using a fax machine, referring to people with a disability as ‘invalid’, having the wife go out and prepare sandwiches. Further to this, there are also some plot holes, which if paying close attention can sometimes make things even more questionable. For example, the ex-wife is presumed dead after 18-months, when in fact the presumption of death comes after seven years. When reviewing these circumstances, it does make the choice of play for Sunnybank Theatre Group feel slightly icky.
Despite this, Director Chris Guyler has navigated the farcical nature of the play well – with characters appearing in doorways, and popping up out of nowhere, just when the audience believes the storyline has settled. This effectively enhanced the comics in the show and gave a solid nod to the nature of the play. There could have been more exploration into the blocking, as the action was frequently played downstage, while a large upstage space remained mostly unused. Utilising the depth of the stage would have provided some nice contrast to the action, as the large cast ended up in straight lines too often, which then lacked dynamics to the delivery of dialogue. Guyler, along with Andrew Cosier, also delivered an impressive set design, which brought the interiors of a newlywed home to life. Antique-looking paintings were mounted on the walls, a large tan sofa sat centre stage, and classic wooden furniture made the room feel intimate and cosy. It may have been worthwhile to build the set walls up to the proscenium, or centre the action within the proscenium frame, as sometimes set pieces were masked and character exit or entry lines were lost, as the proscenium quite literally blocked the view.
Lighting and Sound Design by Joanne Sephton was kept to a minimum. There were a few sound effects, like a car engine, and lights remained in a simple whitewash throughout. Music to set the beginning of the play would have helped ease the audience into the action. At interval, audience members were still chatting as the curtain abruptly opened. A song could have nicely topped and tailed the Act in this respect.
In terms of performances, Nathaniel Young as the best friend, George, stole the show. His humorous and cumbersome antics left him at the folly of most incidents. Young had strong delivery, outstanding comedic timing and great facial expressions. If one ever needs a best friend to help you cover mistakes, George/Young is your guy. As Sarah, Lesly David also had a nice resonance in her vocal tone. Davis embraced her character, selling her mystery injury and prying into the romps of her husband.
Brad Oliver was the caught-off-guard Pete, who admirably tackled a large role. At times, Oliver could have lifted his sightline so his gaze wasn’t focused on the floor. Jessica Heinemann was energetic and wide-eyed as the secret wife, Jessica. More variation could have been explored in Heinemann’s delivery, as sometimes lines were melodic or high in pitch. Chris Sibley as Margot was sassy and suspicious. Finally, Aurelian Ritter was a la’ perfection as the French revelation, Alan.
‘First Things First’ had commitment from its cast and creative team, which made it an easy, laughter-filled rendition. Their camaraderie was evident, and it was lovely to see how proud the theatre was of this show. Sunnybank Theatre Group is a welcoming company, found in the pockets of Sunnybank and worth a visit.
‘First Things First’ performs until Saturday, 19 June 2021 at Sunnybank Theatre Group. For more information visit Sunnybank Theatre Group’s website.