Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Theatre review: Forget Me Not

With the exception of The Royale, 2015 at the Bush has been an inauspicious year to say the least. There's been shows I instantly forgot and ones I really wished I could have forgotten, and their final show is Forget Me Not, which does feature something to remember. Unfortunately that something is a different, and much better show. 60-something Gerry (Russell Floyd) was born in England but taken to Australia aged 4 as part of a scheme to give orphans a better life. It was a disaster because, like Gerry, many of the children ended up on farms as, essentially, unpaid child labour, and were also abused. Following the death of his wife, Gerry's estranged daughter Sally (Sarah Ridgeway) has grudgingly reconnected with him, and together with her boyfriend Mark (Sargon Yelda) has tried to find any relatives he might still have in Liverpool. What they actually find is apparently a common story in cases of "Forgotten Australians" like his.

Gerry was never actually orphaned, but the son of a single mother who thought he'd been adopted by a British couple. And Mary (Eleanor Bron, picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been,) is still alive, unaware of where he actually ended up.

Tom Holloway’s play is told out of order, so it opens with Gerry arriving in Liverpool at Mary's house; unsure of how to respond to such a momentous occasion, she offers him tea and attempts to make him comfortable, but he mostly just shouts at her. Of course, shouting is pretty much all Gerry does throughout the play, his personality essentially boiling down to a shouty, alcoholic wife-beater1. With the abuse he suffered only vaguely alluded to, he's not an easy central character to care too much about.

The cast do decent work - Ridgeway is always a breath of fresh air - but director Steven Atkinson has saddled the play with a staging that doesn't match the material. All year we've seen examples of how UK directors have been influenced by Ivo van Hove's A View From The Bridge, but Atkinson's is the most blatant copy2, Lily Arnold's traverse set overhung by a black box which descends over the action for claustrophobic effect, and music constantly playing in the background. The piece is apparently Handel's Sarabande in D Minor, so epic and dramatic it clearly doesn't suit the intimate family drama on stage. And when Handel's replaced with Queen's "Who Wants to Live Forever?" as Gerry nurses another bottle of plonk, we're well into unintentionally hilarious bathos.

Forget Me Not isn't a great play - the out-of-sequence storytelling lends little, in fact is actively problematic in scenes like Sally taking forever to spit out a shocking revelation to her father - a revelation the audience has known about from the show's opening minute. The attempt at a final twist is also completely un-earned, and as Holloway hasn't dropped any hints about it in earlier scenes he seems to have completely pulled it out of his arse. In an intimate, understated production it might have got away with some of its flaws but Arthur Miller it ain't, a fact of which the misjudged staging only makes us more painfully aware.

Forget Me Not by Tom Holloway is booking until the 16th of January at the Bush Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

1based on what I've seen on stage, of course, "shouty, alcoholic wife-beater" is a synonym for "Australian man." Either Australian playwrights rely too much on a stereotype, or Australia needs to take a long hard look at itself.

2except there's a bit more furniture than in the van Hove, and at one point is glides across the stage for some reason.

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