Wednesday, 5 April 2006

It Just Stopped by Stephen Sewell, Malthouse, April 5, 2006

  It Just Stopped by Stephen Sewell 
 Malthouse Theatre and Company B
 Malthouse Theatre,  April 5 to 23, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on April 5, 2006

The world turns upside down in Stephen Sewell’s play, It Just Stopped. 

Until the final scenes, it is unclear what has triggered the social and technological nightmare being lived by Beth (Catherine McClements) and Franklin (Marcus Graham).

The production boasts fine acting from the cast of four, sleek direction by Neil Armfield, realistic contemporary design (Stephen Curtis), subtle lighting (Paul Jackson) and evocative sound (John Rodgers).

Like Moliere’s comedies of manners, It Just Stopped satirises the manners and affectations of a particular social class – the over-educated, smug American elite who engage in meaningless, cultural pursuits.

Sewell’s script is, at times, hilarious and inspired, at others confusing and downright silly. None of his characters has our sympathy and all are thoroughly dislikeable.

The play begins as a fast, witty duologue between Beth and Franklin. It is a battle of wits between two young, New York intellectuals. Their relationship is based on points scoring, barbed comments and thinly veiled criticism. This opening scene is very funny; its relentless pace drives the dialogue like a stand–up routine.

When Australian cardboard magnate, Bill (John Wood) and his subservient wife, Pearl (Rebecca Massey) arrive, the play takes a detour into what appears to be a bad Australian sit-com, then into an absurdist play and finally a grim, existential nightmare. The dialogue is often savage and punishing. Characters are engaged exhaustingly in continuous verbal conflict.

Graham is compelling as the tortured writer, Franklin. As Beth, McClements has the brittle edginess of the New Yorker. Wood revels in the broad comedy of Aussie tycoon, Bill, and Massey is suitably underplayed and wry as Pearl.

Sewell is clear on one thing: these people are slaves to their urban, contemporary, technological lifestyles. When the power goes off and the phones, computers, radios, televisions and elevators just suddenly stop working, they are prisoners of their own lives, incarcerated in their 47th floor apartment. What can they value when their orderly, affluent lives are disrupted?

We are faced with the horror of our potential future if we do not protect our environment from global warming, capitalism, marketing and consumerism, technology and selfishness.

We are compelled to muse upon why Bill and Pearl are so composed in the face of such adversity. They hint that they have other plans to avert the disastrous consequences of the techno-breakdown until finally, they reveal their awful plan for Beth and Franklin.

Without knowledge of what is to come, the play seems to fall apart at this point and tumble into silliness.

Some audiences will consider It Just Stopped a politically challenging statement. Others could find it as silly and pointless as its characters. It is probably both of these things.

By Kate Herbert

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