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Sunset Strip

Photo by Patrick Boland

The Uncertainty Principle and Griffin Theatre Independent present, SUNSET STRIP, by Suzie Miller, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 14 June – 1 July.

SUNSET STRIP, is a new Australian play from Suzie Miller, following on from CARESS/ACHE, that was presented, too, at the SBW Stables Theatre, under the Direction of Anthony Skuse.

The setting of the play is beside a shack, on the edge of an almost-deserted dust bowl of what was once a mecca for holidaymakers on the edge of a lake. Now there is only ‘sand’ or ‘dirt’ and a marooned fishing boat. Desolation and aridity, the opposite of what the nomenclature of Sunset Strip may signal in our anticipatory imaginations are what we see. (Set and Costume Design, by Emma Vine).

The principal characters are two sisters with a ‘terrible history’ of sibling rivalry and parental favouritism: the older, Caroline (Georgina Symes), a successful lawyer with a smashed up personal life as a result of cancer and the continuing intrusive attempts at medical cure, returning home after a long absence, and the younger, Phoebe (Emma Jackson), a ‘wreck’ of a young woman suffering from drug addiction and the temporary loss of her children to Government care (DOCS) after a stint in rehab, who, besides looking after her father, Ray (Lex Marinos), in a state of unpredictable dementia, has fallen in love and is embracing marriage to a local man, Teddy (Simon Lyndon), who has come, it seems, to a certain peace with his own demons. That Teddy happens, as well, to be an ex-lover of her sister’s, which ended complicatedly, complicates this reunion, this return home, further. The personal given circumstances of these characters lives are many – weighty, if not melodramatic, in their plentitude.

Ms Miller tells us in her long program notes:

SUNSET STRIP is a play about people who happen to be in a few shitty situations. I wanted to reflect how we bumble through life with all sorts of challenges, some of which will never be fixed or cured, but which we take on board and battle along with. There are also many funny and darkly ironic moments that come about even when we live with ‘everything going wrong’. … (that) human beings are remarkable at finding hope in the hardest and most unlikely places … because in being lost, ill, getting old, having cancer, melting down or screwing up, we are at our most human, and sometimes that’s the place where the best laughs are.

The form of SUNSET STRIP is that of a melodrama of family reunion with all its familiar tropes of memories both pleasant and unpleasant, burgeoning with sentimentality and recrimination, but in this case is overloaded with many, many obstacles (too many) for any kind of hope filled resolution – one worried that the children, if and when they arrived (appeared) – which, thankfully they don’t – would bring further problems for the characters to deal with – an ‘Electra’ and ‘Orestes’ possessed by the Furies – the Kindly Ones, I feared.

Ms Miller strives for a balance between the ‘drama’ and the ‘comedy’ of it all. And there are a few laughs in this production of the play, and certainly some sentiment, but the dominant tone of this production, signalled by the acting, is one of continual foreboding of relentless melodrama, massaging painful realities of personal experience into a preference for pursuing pathos rather than the tragedy of the profundity of some of the human life-story possibilities. The play finishes, penultimately, in the horror of addiction, dementia and the subverting of a conscience to illegalities that we know will only bring calamity to all concerned. That the writer, then, ultimately, has created musical fish in a tank that learn to pull the strings of a ‘strung-up’ glockenspiel to play a tune – a poetic metaphor – so as to suggest that anything is possible, is a conceit that is palpably ridiculous and sentimentally romantic that only a Disney-world-view of happy-ever-after could offer. The play finishes in a wistful, silly fantasy, rather than in the facing up to the necessary resiliences for life.

Both Ms Jackson and Symes create characters ‘boiling’ with internalised suffering but in this close space at the SBW Stables Theatre we ‘look’ at actors visibly crafting, acting – externalising their suffering- rather than simply giving us beings existing, that we can imaginatively engage, empathise with. The contrast of judgment in the proffered offers from these actors in Mr Skuse’s Direction is striking: for Mr Lyndon, in the relatively underwritten role of Teddy (maybe that is a ‘gift’) creates a persona with his character responsibilities that has more going on than he shows and thus invites us to endow, invent with him Teddy’s hauntings – so that he is, by far, the most intriguing, interesting character on the stage. Mr Lyndon, in contrast to his leading ladies, seems to be practising elements of ‘restraint’ in his creativity, that neither Ms Jackson or Symes do.

Ms Miller reveals in her program notes that this play comes from a highly personalised need that

had obviously lived in (her) unconscious for a while and especially wanted to present two female characters ‘front and centre’ in the story of this play, to make no apologies for the very female nature of the storytelling – how women talk, relate and move through life’ and to ‘fully embrace and celebrate it. … (that) there is a unique humour about women together, the way we laugh and love and get angry all at the same time. But (that) the male characters in this play are also fundamental to the telling of the story.

Perhaps, I felt, the source of the material and the passionate need to tell this story has not yet been through enough of a refined writing drafting process for it to be a more satisfactory experience in the theatre. Or that the actors were too ‘moved’ by the writer’s source inspiration to craft more delicately.

I contrast SUNSET STRIP to a play and production, at present being presented at the New Theatre, by Sarah Ruhl: THE CLEAN HOUSE, which more or less attempts to present the same human dilemmas, with in this case four female characters (and one male) with a comic/tragic tone and arresting play dramaturgy/structure, that succeeds in all of Ms Miller’s hopes in a very much more sophisticated and rewarding manner.