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A Strategic Plan

Griffin Theatre Company presents A STRATEGIC PLAN, by Ross Mueller, in the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, 27 January – 11 March.

A STRATEGIC PLAN is a new Australian play by Ross Mueller.

Andrew (Justin Smith) is a rock ‘muso’ working in the industry for hire – session guitar etc: a gig with Powderfinger, for god’s sake! But he can’t play live any more: tinnitus, migraine… a health spiral is enveloping him. The art/craft of his passion can’t cover his financial responsibilities, and he wants to marry, so he applies and is recruited to take on a full time job by Board Manager Simon (Matt Day) as a CO-CEO for a youth music organisation called Staccato – at least he is still connected to music. The building – space – of Staccato is in physical decrepitude and reflects the depression of the company’s decline. Andrew devises a program that gives life back to the Company with the development of a bold new strategic plan with a young music enthusiast/’wise-arse’, Jill (Emele Ugavule), who sees through the politics of the situation but has dreams/ambitions for producing. What Andrew has set up, and with his future proposals, it is enough for Staccato to look like a going-thing. Andrew then finds himself in the midst of a corporate ‘scam’ to bully him out of his job – it was only a six month probation, he’s told – so that a sell-up can be taken on. We meet Linda (Briallen Clarke), the blithe Human Resources (HR) rep on The Board of Management. Bewildered and ultimately enraged, his health encroached by panic and depression, Andrew decides to fight back and calls the company out even to an expensive and lengthy case in court in pursuit of compensation for ‘psychological injury’. He loses – the law can’t ensure justice! What does Andrew have left? The music of his young protege Jill. His life passion beats quietly, perhaps enough to resuscitate Andrew’s spiritually, even if the rest of him is a wreck.

Anybody that has been the subject of harassment (and a kind of destruction) by a Corporate Institution (even when it is a not-for-profit organisation), and I can speak from a very vivid and ugly experience inflicted upon myself and others, led by a determined CEO and a HR legion, will recognise the tactics and ghastly language at the centre of Mr Mueller’s play. The play brings back lurid memories in capital letters. Indeed, one of the strength’s of Mr Mueller’s writing is the very fine ear and eye he has for the argot/parlance of the world’s of his characters.The CEO/HR textual cant and method in this play is horrifyingly accurate to my experience – the revealing of a Corporate Strategic Plan all to familiar. I am not sure that this play is merely a ‘satirical’ rendering of this situation, for for the first hand survivors of such a life episode it feels much more like ‘documentary’ re-creation. I know less of the other world of the ‘muso’ but the lingo, too, had a ring of mocking authenticity.

The ambition that Mr Mueller has in giving us the machinations of these worlds, with a satirical edge garnished with more than a soupçon of frustration and impotent anger, brings to mind the Australian Broadcast Company’s (ABC) UTOPIA, written by Rob Stitch, Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner. Unfortunately, the dramaturgical structure in A STRATEGIC PLAN lacks a clean shape to permit an audience in the theatre to get on board. The shifts from the Staccato music venue to the Government office at the Road Traffic Authority and the ‘fire escape’ space in the law court, with the sleight-of-hand time shift ‘games’ of the text, and the role sharing by a couple of the actors, is not solved in production. Certainly, the Staging, Direction, by the usually assured Chris Mead (THE MODERN INTERNATIONAL DEAD, QUACK), does not elucidate, easily, any of this shuffling. The acting, as well, does not have the clarity of style, the homogenous equilibrium of that television company. Two of these actors get it and know it; two don’t. Technically, Mr Mead has let the cast ‘shout’ a lot and at a fairly unvaried tempo. Noisy and kind of relentless. This play, without an interval, became exhausting.

Mr Smith, as Andrew, has a formidable job to play the hapless victim on his downward spiral of physical, emotional and psychological breakdown, and is unable to take us into the character’s dilemma with a clarity for the audience, for us to give him either an understandable empathy or mordant comic appreciation.

That the music industry part of the play – the sentimental heart of the text, where the true identity of Andrew exists – is almost completely dependent with his interaction with Jill, it cannot really glimmer to life, as there is very little chemical spark coming from Ms Ugavule to be a catalyst for that journey. She seems able to do little more with her responsibility than to deliver the text competently. There is no sub-textual creativity going-on here from Ms Ugavule, no sense of Jill’s ‘past’ that brings her to the ‘present’ of the play in pursuit of a ‘future’ – the work is blandly one-dimensional. Whoever Jill meets, there is no mask-shift changing of strategy at all, no psychological adjustments. Ms Ugavule seems to be bamboozled by the world that Jill is so ‘cool’ about and the language/lingo does not come comfortably from her character. One watches Ms Ugavule and expects more, hopes for more, want more, for her presence is arresting, but nothing emanates, no matter how closely one reads her acting offers to allow us to enter the ambitions and relationships in this part of the play. Mr Smith is up against it to bring the play to life without better support.

For, then, Mr Smith in the bigger part of the play is matched against Mark Day, who is blandly handsome as Simon, but lacks the chutzpah necessary to deliver the naked mendacity of the character to take us into the whirly-gigs of modern corporate ambitions and shocking behavioural manipulations – the performance is all surface and lacks any backstory to supply motivation, the comic timing is mechanical, without an organic inspiration discernible. There is little creative comic intuition going-on, and when Mr Day assumes his other casting, the lawyer Perkins, other than to drape a lawyer’s costume over Simon’s suit to indicate to the audience he is another human, nothing at all is demarcated! The audience has to do a lot of work to decide if we are meeting a new character or not.

The only real support for Mr Smith comes from Briallen Clarke who, as she did in the STC’s HAY FEVER, creates comic ‘gems’, subtly demarcated but individual characters, Linda and Leanne, with insightful panache and technical prowess, even if both characters are conceived, preposterously, by the writer, as only caricatured functionaries for his satiric targets. Ms Clarke brings a motivated life, however fragile, to the work, to help us believe. Part of the routine skill/job of being called an ‘actor’, by the way.

The principal Set Design by Sophie Fletcher is deliberately ‘scungy’ and doesn’t solve the shifts of location in the text with much imaginative flair. The changes are decidedly clumsy in their solution. The Lighting (Verity Hampson) is realistic in its ugliness and not conducive to be a comic invitation for the satiric mood of the play.

I was disappointed with A STRATEGIC PLAN. Mr Mueller’s CONSTRUCTION OF THE HUMAN HEART, A TOWN NAMED WAR BOY, even CONCUSSION, have given me a great expectation of his work. I read the play after watching it and saw the hallmarks of Mr Mueller’s interests and stylistic adventures that always engage me, but is there a need for more edit, does the work meander to long in the ferocious ‘anger’ of the commentary or do we need to see another production to bring it to life? A version of the chicken or the egg puzzle, for me. See what you think.