REVIEW: The Lunch Hour | Darlinghurst Theatre, Sydney
The Lunch Hour is the second of two remarkably self-indulgent plays I’ve seen in as many weeks. Come to think of it, both have been in the space of but one week. It pains me to reflect in these terms on Chris Aronsten’s latest, as I had great regard for his last.
And it’s not that The Lunch Hour doesn’t have its merits. It has a very, very good cast, including Angela Bauer, Branden Christine, Briallen Clarke, Bali Padda, Shaun Rennie, Gerry Sont and Sonny Vrebac. And a well-directed one (by Kate Gaul). One has the strongest sense of commitment from all of them but, for mine, they’re trying (their best) to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. This is, to borrow another well-worn cliche, mutton dressed-up as lamb, far removed from “a spectacular, searing and sexy new Australian comedy”, even if it does have one memorable moment of spectacle, in the form of an oddly-placed big production number that hits home on quality and quirkiness, if not much else.
That aside, there isn’t much that’s spectacular. In fact, there’s quite a lot of attempted comedy that falls flat. Not even impeccable timing and delivery can save a joke that’s intrinsically lame. It’s devoid of anything searing as, beyond its exposition of daydreamers stuck in dull jobs, it’s trivial and almost slapstick. I failed to discern anything sexy, either.
Opening night, however, resulted in a rousing reaction; not really surprising, since the audience seemed to be well-populated by peers and barrackers. And chances are many of these could relate to the idea of half-a-dozen struggling artists more-or-less railroaded into supporting their habits by telemarketing. No doubt, also, there are countless others who’ve “enjoyed” stopgap careers in similar roles, but the play seems tailored to talking to fellow actors and other theatre-makers, which is a comparatively small niche. This is what I mean by self-indulgent.
Charli Dugdale’s piecemeal design is messy and (surprisingly) poorly (and by that I mean unimaginatively) lit, by Luiz Pampolha. Diego Retamales’ fight scene, along with Kirby Burgess’ and Ash Bee’s choreography are among the more functional and successful aspects of the production. Daryl Wallis’ composition and arrangements are also implicated in the high points.
Martin is barely middle-managing, the meat in the sandwich as ineffectual team leader of the rat pack of telesalespersons over which he theoretically presides. They’ve no respect for him. While he’s secretly busy writing a close-to-the-bone, tell-all play about them, they’re perpetrating a similar “moonlit” assignment, collaborating in an all-out (well, a half-hearted one, anyway) effort to triumph in a competition which will enable them to share in a desperately needed $25,000.
One day, after things come to an ugly head between him and his staff, Martin doesn’t show. As a parting gesture and fitting reward (just desserts might be a more apt term), Martine leaves a copy of his play on each of their desks. They decide to stage a reading. In the process, as much as they sniff and sneer at Martin’s self-delusions, they learn some hard truths about themselves. Narratively, this forms the heart of the action. But besides are a number of vignettes which seem to veer off, like dream sequences, to the point where one wonders if one hasn’t walked into the wrong theatre after interval. The irony is these scenes which tend to stand out as the best, such as that in which Simon and Felicity audition for a role as a couple.
Gerry Sont struggles vocally and otherwise as the would-be neurotic Martin, particularly in relate to robust performances from the rest of the cast. Shaun Rennie, for example, shows his acting to be as fine as his singing, for which he’s arguably better-known. Sonny Vrebic as Simon, enjoys baiting and sparring with Branden Christine, as Fran, the hip-hopping dyke, but cowers from and defers to his clueless, busty belle Felicity (Briallen Clarke, whose knack for comedy is prodigious). Angela Bauer exceeds, too, as Catherine, a middle-aged actor whose personal life is bursting at the seams, thanks to her propensity for self-destructive behaviour.
Bali Padda, as innocent but obliging Ali, the Indian cleaner recruited into their in camera performance of Martin’s play, shows a similar instinct for the comedic as Clarke and Bauer. In character, however, when conspiring against their boss, they show an ugly side that’s demonically childish and quite disturbing at the same time. I couldn’t figure out the why. After all, as petty as the back-stabbing politics of the workplace can be and as cruel and claustrophobic as that environment can feel, it doesn’t really match-up with any relatable experience, I wouldn’t have thought. It’s too histrionic to even be truly funny, making me almost wince, rather than chuckle, at times.
So, again, here is an excellent cast and director in search of a better, more cohesive, coherent play, rather than one that talks to itself or, at least, its writer and a lounge room full of sympathetic colleagues. And I’m more than a little tired of this play within a play conceit, which has surfaced an awful lot lately. The spark has now arced from clever to cliche.
To stay with electricity, this play had too little. There was a lot more gas involved. All its potential energy has been exploited by a gifted and intrepid director, though, with a keen aptitude for casting and comedy. But for Chris Aronsten, a writer who’s previously shown just how much he’s capable of, it’s a misfire; a cock-eyed, disparate, shaky and shoddy comedy built on sand.
The details: The Lunch Hour plays Darlinghurst Theatre until October 7. Tickets on the venue website.