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REVIEW: Straight | Red Sitch, Melbourne

Straight is kitchen-sink comedy that asks some curly questions on relationships and sexuality. Red Stitch’s production of the British play is hard to fault.

Ben Prendergast and Ryan Gibson in Straight | Red Stitch (Pic: Jodie Hutchinson)

Straight readers consider this: would you, for a dare, have sex with a same-sex friend, despite absolutely no sexual attraction to him/her? And if you did, how would you set up the encounter and negotiate the mysterious technical details? The biggest question is, of course, why on earth would you think of performing such a prank in the first place?

While the core premise to DC Moore’s new comedy Straight might read like a daft drama school improvisation assignment, or post-adolescent rugby-club bet, interesting ideas about modern sexual mores and relationships are explored in this tightly produced, well-written and very funny comedy.

As my partner and I squeezed our way into Red Stitch’s tiny St Kilda auditorium, Lewis and Morgan watched from their postage stamp-sized studio space “on stage”. In a world where social media has made everyone both performer and voyeur, Owen Phillips clever in-your-face set makes it clear that this is going to be a very intimate and confronting evening. Is this anxiety-ridden and totally believable young couple, excellently played by Ryan Gibson and Rosie Lockhart, watching computer TV, or watching us?

The plot is kitchen sink comedy (without space for the sink). We learn Lewis and Morgan are living the fiscal realities of the post-GFC world stuck in their vastly over-capitalized and minuscule investment property. Married and more or less settled, they are literally trying for a child when, out of the blue, the pony-tailed Waldorf (Ben Prendergast), Lewis’ best friend from university days and a card carrying wandering spirit, arrives.

What happens next is an exploration of Lewis and Waldorf’s former and present relationship: during university years there was partying and they were very close, but Lewis took the steady path. Waldorf left the country to travel and experienced a very different life. Lewis is envious and starts to question the boring decisions he is making.

As the boys’ bromance is re-established, the plot thickens with the appearance of the wonderful Steph, whose interest in the artistic potential of “performance porn” becomes the catalyst for semi-naked undie-romping and very awkward bedroom action in the second half of the play.

Christina O’Neil as Steph was, to quote her character, “fucking brilliant, yeah?”. I loved her lethargic, Amy Winehouse-like delivery; easily sexy and seductive one-second, a tad menacing and scary the next. Her performance was one of the many highlights of the evening.

Awkward perfectly describes my and, I would assume, most of the audience’s feeling though, as the play grinds its way towards what is a peculiar and almost impossible to achieve climax. Of course, if you put two people together who say they don’t fancy each other and tell them to have sex, it is going to be awkward, especially in front of a leering voyeurs.

Straight invites controversy, toying, as it does, with the idea that gay sex is a choice straights can choose at whim. It would be interesting to see a gay male and female couple in the same dramatic fix. How would that make a predominantly straight audience feel? I wonder if it would be as awkwardly funny? At one point, I thought the play could be renamed: “No gay sex please, we’re British”.

Be that as it may, the final scene was a brilliant and sensitive piece of comic acting by the male leads Ryan Gibson and the wonderful Ben Prendergast. At one point, I almost fell out of my seat with laughter during a set piece involving what looked like an exploding tube of lubricant.

Red Stitch Actor Theatre’s production of Straight is the Australian premiere of the play first performed last year in Sheffield. Dean Bryant’s tight direction hinges on the timing of difficult-to-get-right London-estuary banter and his excellent cast brings to life the dialogue, which sparkles with sharp witty rejoinders.

There is nothing to fault this slick and professional production, which even makes a virtue of space limitations with beautifully choreographed and funny scene changes. Even the accents are right to be unnoticeable, a rare achievement. But bear in mind, dear reader, this play hails from a coarsened Britain, where one character calling another a “cunt” multiple times could easily be described as a term of endearment.

The details: Straight plays Red Stitch until September 28. Tickets on the company website.

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