Review: Colder – La Boite Indie & Michelle Miall at The Roundhouse

Images: Al Caeiro

The first of the La Boite 2011 Indie season productions, Colder by Lachlan Philpott, opened at Brisbane’s Roundhouse Theatre last week. Directed by Michelle Miall and performed by a cast of six actors, this play is a tonal poem of melancholy. Like slow, sad rain falling on the heart, Colder washes its audience in a threnody of loss.

You’ve got to love the range and confidence of independent theatre in Brisbane right now. Sure, there are hits and misses – as there must be – but, as someone said a while back, it’s indie work with its daring and devilry that’s the life-blood of the wider theatre culture in this country. The indie voice heard in productions around town can be raucous and potty-mouthed, silly or serious. Sometimes the voice is delicate and challenging – as it is in this one.

I’m a sucker for poetic theatre – the theatre of poetry – whatever you want to call it. I fell for the poetry – the beauty and un-selfconscious lyricism – of Philpott’s text in Colder. Having said that and, despite the buzz of the play’s language, the work feels too long in the playing – is this the production’s pacing or the length and structure – even the nature – of the text itself? I wondered at the number of characters in the work and the inclusion of incidental interludes and monologues. Was it these which seemed to be holding up the core narrative?

The play revolves around David (Chris Vernon) the enigmatic central character who disappeared first (and for a few hours) as a child on a visit to Disneyland, and then, never to return, as an adult in Sydney. The play’s action is contextualised within the gay community of Sydney, and was inspired by one of the writer’s friends who went missing some years ago.

The cause of David’s disappearances comes late in Colder. In direct audience address he speaks of being haunted throughout his life in pursuit of the figures of a man and a boy – the father he knew only briefly and the confident boy he could never be. It only hints – but that is enough – at how and why David remains missing.

In any case, Colder is less of a mystery than a psychological exploration of the effect David’s disappearances have had upon his friends and acquaintances (Kevin Spink and Kerith Atkinson in multiple roles), his lover Ed (Tony Brockman) – but especially upon his mother, Robyn, who is played by Alison McGirr and Helen Howard in younger and older versions of the same character. We walk in their shoes wondering why and how for much of the play. The ensemble of six are in fine form and, under Myall’s direction, handle Philpott’s lovely text very well indeed.

Colder is a play that may have some asking how a text which relies more on voice than on embodiment can be improved by staging. Is it better suited for the vocal orchestration of radio where ‘the pictures are better’ for example? Michelle Miall’s production is far from static, but characters give witness, they narrate, and they describe more often than they interact. The play is not particularly dramatic but that’s no burden. This is the nature of Lachlan Philpott’s script, of course and, anyway, hoorah for poetic theatre.

What is gained in its staging – in breathing the same air together in the same room – is the embodied experience of grief and its effects which are as uneasy to watch as any forensic investigation must be. This is what the actors’ physical presence adds.

Design by Amanda Karo, lighting by Daniel Anderson and composition and sound design by Phil Slade mesh beautifully, as they should, for Michelle Miall’s most satisfying production of the difficult and cold road of the grief-stricken.

Colder plays at The Roundhouse Theatre as part of La Boite’s Indie 2011 season until 9 July. Check the La Boite website for session times and booking details.

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