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Is This Thing On?

Photo by by Brett Boardman

Belvoir presents IS THIS THING ON? by Zoe Coombs Marr, in the Downstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills, 2 Oct – 2 Nov.

IS THIS THING ON? by Zoe Coombs Marr is a new Australian play. It tells the story of a stand-up comedian, Brianna, over the arc of her career. The writer’s conceit is to have five actors: Madeline Benson, Genevieve Giuffre, Fiona Press, Susan Prior and Nat Randall, play at different points in that career, the one comedian.

Set in a pub space, with an uncomfortably realistic detailed design (Ralph Myers) that includes the classic swirl ‘vomit’ carpet from the entrance into the theatre, and a row of poker machines, on a stage built of milk crates and a black painted ‘stage-board’, Brianna, impersonated by all five women, gives a non-chronological stand-up ‘show’ weaving in and out of different time periods, with the added dramatic undertow of the psychological struggle of the comedian and their ‘precious’ point-of-view that the best of them have, with the gathering addictive crutch of the pleasurable ‘numbing’ of the handy alcohol of the environment, perniciously, disabling her.

The writing by Ms Coombs Marr, is good at this personal level, it coming painfully, viscerally from first hand observation and experiences, it seems – the writer is a stand-up artist in her own right. Do we forgive her for some of the work that we have experienced from her and her other collaborators, Post: A DISTRESSING SCENARIO; or OEDIPUS SCHMOEDIPUS? Perhaps, I do! With these actors, plugged into the sub-textual humanity of the comic routine, under the co-Direction by Ms Coombs Marr and Kit Brookman, divining the inner agonies and the external mask of Brianna, this show worked disturbingly well.

All the actors are terrific. Young Ms Benson, properly trepidatious in her venture into Brianna’s profession; Ms Press wisely matured and steady at the other end of Brianna’s journey. Carrying the main burdens of the task, Ms Randall is winning as the self-confessed ‘lesbian’ comic of the persona; Ms Giuffre, as the ‘learning’ comic, is marvellously detailed and subtle in her drawing of Brianna – a very clever and subtly arresting performer, I reckon; whilst, Ms Prior revealing the slow disintegration of Brianna into breakdown, over the arc of the playing time, once again demonstrates why she is one of the great talents appearing on our stages: Talent, Skills, Preparation, Courage (in this case, of uncompromising ferocity in her embodied observations), and the daring to play it at 150%. Ms Prior is a miracle of high-end consistency in her output – last year’s SMALL AND TIRED, for instance. Gatekeepers: challenge her with the classics e.g. Mrs Alving in Ibsen’s GHOSTS!!! Queen Margaret – from the WAR OF THE ROSES Shakespearian cycle. Shen Te, from THE GOOD PERSON OF SETZUAN. Anything, really.

The play is a very promising work as a personal exposé, and sits very comfortably in the self-examining world of most of our Australian writers output – that of the little picture (personal) , not bigger picture (global). Read Trevor Griffiths, COMEDIANS (1975) which, similarly, looks at the world of ‘stand-up’ and the characters that dare it in a world that relishes it, needs it, and see why I wish, here, for more development around these given circumstances. Considering the cultural critiques that Ms Coombs Marr has given us in some of her other work, I had hoped for more. Still, IS THIS THING ON? especially, because of its exploration of ‘form’ in the writing, and the wonderful performances and ensemble of the actors, makes it a worthwhile experience. Five, count them, 5 women on stage. Big cheer.