Sunday, 23 April 2017

Three Little Words,, April 22, 2017 ***1/2

By Joanna Murray-Smith, Melbourne Theatre Company
Southbank Theatre The Sumner, until May 27, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on April 22, 2017
Stars: ***1/2
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on April 27, 2017 and in print. KH

Peter Houghton, Catherine McClements- Pic Jeff Busby

Although separation is not a contagious condition, witnessing the breakdown of friends’ relationships may be distressing and it can certainly be unsettling for other couples.

In Three Little Words by Joanna Murray-Smith, Tess and Curtis (Catherine McClements, Peter Houghton) blithely announce to their closest friends, long-term couple, Annie and Bonnie (Kate Atkinson, Katherine Tonkin), that they are splitting after 20 years of wedded bliss.

What follows is the brutal, and often funny dismantling of Tess and Curtis’s marriage as well as the destabilising of Annie and Bonnie’s relationship as they are forced to confront the rusted-on patterns of behaviour in their own, two-decade partnership.

What begins as absurdly reasonable negotiation between Tess and Curtis soon develops into nit-picking criticism that morphs into vindictive arguments then escalates into scrappy, idiotic physical fighting.

Murray-Smith’s quick-witted dialogue and Sarah Goodes’ sleek direction keep the action moving and the emotional conflict searing.

McClements captures Tess’s manipulative and insensitive nature without losing our sympathy, despite Tess being absolutely slappable when she spouts pop psychology, declares her ‘yearnings’ to find herself outside of her marriage, or denigrates Curtis’s choice to be a school teacher.

Houghton convincingly portrays Curtis’s evolution from confused, beleaguered and obliging husband to confident, happy, middle-aged man who moves on with his life – rather too quickly and successfully for the women around him.

Atkinson plays the naive and loving Annie with warmth and sensitivity, allowing her gentle and accepting nature to shine despite the criticism she suffers when Bonnie treats her as a lovable under-achiever.

As Annie’s partner, the capable and high-earning art-dealer, Tonkin balances Bonnie’s patronising and controlling behaviour with her fierce loyalty and inherent goodwill.

In spite of their alarming and childish behaviour and their obvious flaws, all four characters are strangely likeable, perhaps because of the familiarity of their human failings.

The living areas of the two couples’ homes sit atop a suspended, solid square floor that revolves between scenes (design by Michael Hankin), gives the impression of time passing, the world spinning and people changing but the overall effect is disorienting for both audience and characters.

Although the brutality of the demise of Tess and Curtis’s relationship is alarming, it is also recognisable and Murray-Smith’s treatment of it is witty and entertaining.

By Kate Herbert

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