Wednesday, 10 March 1999

The Sick Room, 10 March 1999

by Stephen Sewell
at Playbox at Merlin Theatre from March 9, 1999
Bookings: 9685 5111
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

There are better plays in Stephen Sewell's repertoire than his most recent work for Playbox, The Sick Room: The Blind Giant is Dancing, Dreams in an Empty City, Hate and his screen adaptation of The Boys which won an AFI award.

So what went wrong with The Sick Room? The story is viable. 17 year-old Kate (Asher Keddie) who is dying with cancer, is removed by her mother (Celia de Burgh) and father (Peter Curtin) from her family home to live out her last days at the coastal home of her grandfather, (Rhys McConnochie).

Strangely, the play never adequately addresses the family's grief. There is scant evidence that Sewell understands living with a dying family member. Individuals react to death and myriad ways. Even the most insensitive people do not shout all day when someone is dying upstairs. Some may choose to avoid it but surely one might choose to face the dying and act unselfishly for at least a moment.

The problems with this production are certainly not the fault of the actors who struggle to make Sewell's clumsy dialogue credible. Nor are they the fault of Kate Cherry's direction. Cherry has created a poetic, visual environment to help counteract the rather stolid speechifying, the lack of logic in the narrative and the complete lack of sympathy we feel for the characters.

Cherry keeps the series of too-short scenes moving swiftly across the starkly designed and evocatively lit space, (Richard Roberts, Matt Scott) dovetailing them together so that the awkwardness of their endings is less evident. She has worked to create relationships between characters when none are developed within the text.

The actors are not assisted by this lack of relationship between family members. There is too much shouting because every relationship is built on constant conflict that has been a fault in previous Sewell plays.

Keddie's Kate is a potent still point in this chaos. The most compelling, sustained and contained scene was between her and the housekeeper, played by the engaging Beverly Dunn, during which these two strangers discuss death and unfulfilled life.

The intention may have been to raise political issues about the ignorance and selfishness of the monied class or the inability of family's to communicate when most needed, but Sewell fails to penetrate any issue. The play simply peters out in the final moments.
K Herbert

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