Skip to main content

The Flick

Photo by Marnya Rothe

Outhouse Theatre Company and Seymour Centre present, THE FLICK, by Annie Baker, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, City Rd. Chippendale. 5th – 21st April.

THE FLICK, by Annie Baker, is a multi-award winning American play. It won the Pulitzer Prize for 2014. It is also a play that has divided the audience’s response between relish and rejection.

The Flick is a run-down cinema that screens re-runs/revivals in Worcester, Massachusetts. It is practically the only cinema that projects film rather than digital in Massachusetts state. We meet its staff of three, over a summer cycle (three months, or so, I think), in their raspberry coloured collared short sleeved t-shirts: Sam (Jeremy Waters), a 35 year-old, who has held down this job of Cleaning, Box-office and Refreshment duties for some time, and his long time assistant, Rose (Mia Lethbridge), who also has the added principal duty as the Projectionist. Rose doesn’t clean. Sam longs to become the ‘alternate’ projectionist. Rose might be in her late twenties/thirties. Lastly, there is the new-comer, Avery (Justin Amankwah), a 20 year-old, black, be-spectacled, College student, on summer break. He feels he is a ‘loner’/outsider, but is, as well an avid cinephile with an encyclopaedic knowledge and utter dedication to the magic of film (as opposed to the digital form) – all three have this ‘disease’. Their cinematic ‘mania’ must be some compensation to work at The Flick, as they earn only $7.75 an hour.

The audience sit facing the run-down auditorium (Set and Costume Design by Hugh O’Connor) from the point-of-view of the screen. Each of the many scenes, mostly, take place between the session screenings, and we watch Sam and Avery clean – sweep and mop – the detritus left by the customers, and Rose prepare, upstairs, in the isolated projection booth, the equipment for the next screening. The break is usually twenty minutes or so and sometimes Rose joins them. In combinations of two or three, the scenes mostly are conversations about cinema, their job, with only a gradual information drip-feed about the family, social circumstances of each. Nothing happens much, except the action of cleaning. The conversations appear to be idle chatter – to pass the time – full of pause and silences, and it is only as we ‘travel’ through the long duration of the play that we gradually realise that we have been seduced into an intimacy of knowledge that engenders identification and compassion for these three, and that a whole Star Wars universe of change has, subliminally, taken place.

You must be warned, and this is where the division of audience response to this play occurs – Relish or Reject – that it is not a play for those with an attention deficit disability. It is for the contemplative and emotionally generous, it is for those who have an inclination to want to stop the world and its modern frenzy and get off, it is for those who have a comfort in zen-like gaze – an Eastern philosophic bent for wanting to watch rocks grow in your garden – to slow your heart, to slow your breath so that you can see – really see, and experience – really experience, other lives through your own. If your positive response to play-going experiencing is limited to the violent verbal and physical athleticism of say, David Mamet (GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS – 1992) or, Sam Shepard (FOOL FOR LOVE – 1982), this work (and the other work of Annie Baker, in general) will be a challenge, as Anton Chekhov’s work can be when it is properly produced with the careful intention of the writer at the front and centre of the artistic endeavour (and that doesn’t happen often enough!)

Annie Baker with her sensitive observations of the daily interaction between people uses ‘pause’ and ‘silence’ as effectively as any spoken text, and it is there, then, in the respectful acknowledgement of that author’s instruction/syntactical guide by the creative team, that this work will come to life – for, it is then that you the audience will have to actively engage and endow, solve what might be really going on, though unsaid. It is then when you, the audience, get to act, to have to contribute to the dilemmas, to imagine, to unconsciously utilise your life’s secrets to make sense of what is happening to Sam, Avery and Rose in the living of their very ordinary day, days of vital, important, life-changing incident, for them, so that you will experience the ‘stakes’ of their lives, and ‘grow’ a sense of responsibility to what happens to them.

THE FLICK is a super-naturalistic, slow theatre experience, the first act some 100 minutes long, the second act some 70 minutes long – there is an interval provided so that the unmoved can escape. For those of us who come back after the interval, we have intuited what Ms Baker has done, which is to ‘massage’ the verbatim of closely observed people in mundane situations and activities and daringly repeats them, with small differences, so that for the vulnerable, metaphors are gradually distilled, and glimpses of the profundity of life in the everyday Our Towness, in the run-down Worcester Cinema, the ordinariness of just being, are revealed. There is no need for heated argument, savage violence, broken crockery or guns, or even death to bring drama, comedy, irony to the world of the theatre. The ‘cock-and-ball’ conflict of the usual play is replaced here with, perhaps, a feminine perspective that is expressed gently after observation and thoughtful exposures of truths to propose that none of us are unique or alone in the arc of the journey of life, and that, perhaps, we should relax and see what fate has in store, and not feel the necessity to force our will to control the events of our lives. Ms Baker’s is a view of the world that doesn’t need a ‘war’ – dramaturgical winners and losers – to teach lessons on what life is.

I have to confess to you all, my favourite thing in all the world is going to the ‘pictures’/the ‘movies’/ the ‘flicks’. It began at the age of four or five in picture palaces such as the Randwick Ritz, the Kings in Clovelly, the Boomerang in Coogee and the Star in Bondi Junction – let alone those in the city: the St. James, The Mayfair, the Embassy, the Prince Edward, the Regent, the Forum, the Century, the State, the Paris and especially the Plaza (that building is still there behind all those ghastly franchise food halls – you can see some of the exotic foyer decorations, if you look up, up ,up), and so many others. In fact, my favourite most blissful moment, still, is just when the lights begin to dim before the ‘trailers’ for the coming films begin (although, the interpolation of all those commercials does ruin, now-a-days, a trifle, a significant trifle though – that ecstasy). So this play has, for me, the power of nostalgia and an extra dimension of identifying with these characters – in some ways it feels like biography and the ultimate effect for me was the promotion of a ‘holiday mood’, a lightness, an optimism at the end of the night. (It lasted most of the walk home!)

Under the Direction of Craig Baldwin, Hugh OConnor has Designed/created a look for the Set and Costume that is so apt that it could pass without acknowledgement of its innate skill. Martin Kinnane with his Lighting Design manages a variety of atmospheres from a kind of stark fluorescent reality to the mood of plushness and emotionalities of nostalgia and regretful contemplation of change and loss, even into the passing of the auditorium onto new management making demands of modernity in this flickering environment that facilitates the projection of film. Whilst, Nate Edmondson captures the Soundtrack of the film genres of this Flickerhouse, and Designs a ‘tinny’ stereo, that is so inferior in quality that it evokes, captures, a remembered time of the valiant suburban theatres’ determination to attempt respectful quality of ‘showing’ – ahh, the memory of the cinema venue in Kogarah!

The performances by the actors are of a brave craftsmanship.

Mia Lethbridge is impressive with her five-fathoms deep connections to the source of the unknown ‘grief’ in her Rose (abuse?), with all of its externalised spiky, misguided sexual energy, and immature social and intellectual denseness verging on deliberate, self-protective naivity, which she is pitting against the stultifying opportunities of her small world. Can she escape? More urgently, does she even know she can escape? That she should escape?

Ms Lethbridge is more than matched by a truly remarkable stage debut performance by Justin Amankwah, as Avery. His ownership of the spoken dialogue is redolent with the puzzled pain of an intuitive intelligent youth – perhaps, the special pain and puzzlement of a black youth in a white world – such that it is a precious and fragile commodity, that one needfully feels one should reach out to Avery to protect him and advise him that it may all turn out well, given time. Mr Amankwah’s principal persuasiveness is the complex and detailed ‘ripples’ of thought and the narrative of it, that he sensitively reflects for us, throughout all his body, but particularly with the muscularities of his face, in his active listening and thought filled deliberations in Avery’s forward contemplations to solve his learning in the environment of this flicker house with these people. Avery’s collective journey in this production was the spine of the experience of THE FLICK, for me. So, ultimately, full of pathos that one could weep.

Jeremy Waters, as Sam, gives an insightful and compassionate performance but does tend to show us too much at key moments – there is sometimes a breakout of the actor and his craft that is apparent, rather than the subtle, disciplined expression of truth with distilled clues, that ought to mask the ‘volcanics’ of Sam’s ‘tragedy’, so that a living, breathing man rather than a passionate living, breathing “actor’ be offered to us. There are sometimes gestures of theatrics given, by Mr Waters, that breaks the reality of Ms Baker’s writing. Experience it rather than show it. Less is better. Restraint. Relax. Just breathe, don’t force.

Matthew Cheetham fills out the other persona of the play with instinct and fine judgement.

There is so much to ponder, in writing about THE FLICK, in the diagrammatic possibilities of Ms Baker’s play. The juxtaposition of life lived as opposed to the filmic constructs of supposed life. The need to have art to help us live more happily, reliably. The debate between the art of film and the loss that may be the norm with advancements of new technology: Film v’s digital quality. The life of the ordinary, the Lowman rather than the King, and its value. The importance of theatre. The importance of the live experience. The importance of the shared experience. Ms Baker’s style of writing, I hear some say! There probably is much more, to talk about, in the bar or coffee shop, lecture hall, afterwards, that THE FLICK might provoke.

I, as you can tell, am a fan of Annie Baker and her writing. I have waited for the opportunity to see a production of this play, though, of course, trepidatious on how it can be/should be done. Outhouse Theatre Company have before produced another of Ms Baker’s plays,in Sydney, THE ALIENS, and was Directed by Craig Baldwin, and played by Jeremy Waters. Mr Baldwin has given TIME for Ms Baker’s play to work, this time round.

I recommend this play and production. Remember the commitment that Annie Baker demands of you, before you decide to go. Though to not see it would be sad for me to know. Do go to the Reginald.

Ms Baker has two more recent plays: JOHN (2015) and THE ANTIPODES (2017).