Review: The Pitch and The China Incident – Queensland Theatre Company at QPAC Cremorne

Image: Queensland Theatre Company

Sometimes you see a production that so beautifully pulls form and content together that it becomes the perfect icing on a delicious cake. This is the way I feel about Queensland Theatre Company’s first for the 2013 Season, a double-bill by Peter HoughtonThe Pitch (directed by Catarina Hebbard) and The China Incident (directed by Daniel Evans).

Both plays are about role-playing. To hit their marks both require actors of imagination with a mastery and control of stagecraft – the key ingredients for great role-playing. Both plays are monodramas – extended monologues – requiring stamina and all the power of concentration their cast can muster. The one-person play is the supreme test for the actor; the risks are high but the rewards marvellous if it all works. Fortunately and marvellously for us Barbara Lowing and Hugh Parker fit the bill and their roles like a glove.

Two characters Bea Pontivec (Ms Lowing) and Walter Weinermann (Mr Parker) are under pressure: he’s a writer preparing to pitch a new movie to potential producers; she’s a high-level, political PR consultant jockeying clients and a family wedding. Their respective clocks are ticking – Walter’s got an hour to get his movie together; she to wrangle a genocidal African general, the President of the US, the UN, her in-laws, stroppy daughter and …. you get the idea?

Bea and Walter’s personal lives provide the catalyst for the action in each play – blurring the boundaries between the immediate and wider worlds, the real and the imaginary. It’s rich territory to mine and Mr Houghton’s plays, like the best of farce, are bitterly-sweet and cynical. Here his social satire is mostly hysterical and very physical. Whilst containing local references which place the action in Australia, these plays could easily play anywhere. The worlds of international PR and movie-making are global, after all. I’d love to see them get wider exposure internationally.

I also saw the play in its second preview on Monday of this week. Then the playing order had been reversed. Now, the more-internalised energy of The Pitch precedes the explosive dynamic of The China Incident and it works far better in terms of the overall production.

Barbara Lowing and Hugh Parker are absolute delights to watch at work. Both plays are strong on narrative: will Walter find the elusive ending to his film? Can Bea keep all balls in the air and avert a personal and professional (and possibly global) crisis?

Mr Parker’s role-playing within a role-play is slick, accurate, and beautifully timed. I was reminded of the way Robin Williams also effortlessly switches character, pace and focus and keeps the energy high and the story ticking over. If you love impressions you’ll love the way Hugh Parker can transform physically and vocally without missing a beat. I lost count of the characters and the actors ‘playing’ them. My favourite was a very brief appearance by Woody Allen.

Barbara Lowing’s Bea is an organisational monster – queen of the multicoloured phones on her desk and that link her to the world outside her hive. As her tale unfolds, the perfectly-groomed Bea’s world comes crashing down horribly. The task for the actor in The China Incident is to create and develop relationships with invisible others. At no stage as the action moves from the energised control at the start to total, manic chaos at the end does Bea’s hand appear to leave the phone(s) she wrangles. Whilst Bea crashes, Ms Lowing never loses her grip on Bea’s runaway world, steering the play’s energies, gear-changing seemingly effortlessly from crisis to crisis. It’s a tour de force by an artist at the top of her game.

Simone Romaniuk designs two worlds for the plays’ protagonists – Walter’s is messy, drab whilst Bea’s is pristine and very, very tasteful in a groomed, retentive kind of way. By the way, I stayed for the scene change at interval last night and watched the Stage Management team – props to Jennifer Buckland (The Pitch) and Ben Shaw (The China Incident) – as they went to work on their own bit of transformation. It’s worth foregoing a trip to the bar. Ben Hughes‘ lighting and Lawrence English (Composer/Sound Designer) perfectly complement Walter and Bea’s inner and outer worlds.

For the first time as an audience member, I experienced a production during its preview season and then again on opening night. It’s well known by those who work on a show that the differences are often palpable. Changes are made as the production team refines the work after the final production ingredient – the audience – arrives. It’s still rehearsal time after all. Some alterations during this time can be major, like the switching of running order which changed the overall feel of a production, whilst others are small. I wanted to see if I could track this production’s variations over the 4 days from first preview on Monday to opening night on Thursday.

It seemed to me that both actors were more confident and, as a result, their performances were tighter, better paced and timed. Of course, an opening night audience brings a particular set of energies to the room. Whilst all performances of a play can and do differ, these small adjustments often go unobserved by an audience. For the production team, however, the audiences provide most of what creates a difference to a particular performance – their reaction can be a catalyst to the back and forth, the exchange that is part of the game of theatre. Running time can tell a lot about the way a show played on any given night. I’d be willing to bet that last night’s times clocked in under Monday’s.

If I have a quibble – and it remains from a first viewing – I think Walter’s ‘worlds’ in The Pitch need separating and delineating further; it’s somewhat confusing when they overlap. The writing is tight as must be the playing and the switch from the world of the movie he plays out to the recollections of his private life, and then the switch to the ‘here and now’ could do with some further help in the production.

If you love a good story, top-flight acting, sensitive direction and fresh writing see The Pitch and The China Incident at QPAC’s Cremorne. The double bill plays until 9 March.