Ah, that’s right. It’s okay to laugh. Sometimes, often, in the desert-dry cut-and-thrust of modern life, I forget I like to laugh; it’s good to laugh. Fortunately, playwright Tony McNamara remembers and has kept this therapeutic approach firmly in mind, in writing The Grenade, tried-and-tested by the Melbourne Theatre Company, but co-produced with the Sydney Theatre Company and now just arrived in the more northerly capital.
The first half-hour, especially, is full to bursting with sharp, rapidfire, witty dialogue. After that, there’s the odd lull and some propensity to lapse into histrionics and stretch the narrative batter a bit too thin; there are gimmicks, cheap shots and a little too much irrelevant borrowed interest peppers the plot, such as a lewd, very dated, hackneyed throwaway about Bill Clinton. But that’s as bad as it gets. For the most part, it’s very good indeed, while falling fairly well short of great. Though one does get the sense he really wants to be writing for television. And perhaps he should be: I can see scope for a sitcom here, but one with some heart. He has, of course. Maybe he should stick to it. No, that isn’t a hissy-fit bitch slap. It’s an earnest musing.
McNamara has kept other things in mind in his deployment of comedy. While, some of the time, it would seem to be comedy for comedy’s sake (not that there’s anything wrong with that), he also uses it as a dramatic device, as a mask for pointed and even poignant observation about existential matters. He touches lightly on these, but not necessarily superficially. They remain unexplored, but the gentle hints are enough for us to reach into our own experience and pull out some pretty powerful feelings. I think there’s sincerity behind the writing as, perhaps, evidenced in Macca’s programmatic observation, as follows; one I believe to be all too accurate. ‘Fear seems to have become the dominant emotion in our lives: fear of loss; of others; of the truth. It struck me the dear that drains out of politics and the media and into our bloodstreams does nothing but separate us from each other and makes us lonely’.
Sally McTavish (Belinda Bromilow) is lonely. For many years, she lived one of the most ironically lonely existences possible, as an unsuitable nun, with a closet full of dreams and romance novels. She was closer to God, perhaps, but far removed form her own wants, needs, soul and body. She’s still lonely, because her much older husband, Busby (Garry McDonald, typecast perhaps, but he does it well), despite protestations his family and home are the dearest things to him, is very wrapped up in his career as a down-and-dirty political lobbyist. So she loses herself, penning romances of her own, with moderate success.
Busby’s lonely, too. And, being a real man, he’s hiding it beneath a tough veneer. Losing himself in his work, while painfully aware his young wife is struggling to come to terms with motherhood and a baby from which they both seem estranged, an idea communicated through an oddly effective device, inasmuch as portraying the heard-but unseen baby as a multilingual child of the devil. What with Sally’s not really believable background as a penguin, there seem to be some confused ideas about the oppressions and privations of ardent Catholicism, or religion in general, looking for a way to express themselves.
Busby, of course, has a former life. And wife. Sally’s his second. His first slept with all his friends and he still acutely feels the betrayal, which has poisoned his psyche with a more generalised paranoia. He finds a grenade in his house. While on the one hand a sledgehammer, this small incendiary does concentrate and distil all the fears to which Mc alludes, so they can be grappled with dramatically.
There’s another grenade or two in Busby’s homelife. His smart, nerdish daughter by his first marriage, Lola (Eloise Mignon), is coming of age. Meanwhile, Busby fears a new sexual awakening in Sally’s life, too, occasioned by her collaboration on an erotic romance novel with handsome, macho ex-commando, Randy Savage (well, if you’re going to contrive a name, you might as well go all the way, I s’pose), played by Bert Labonte.
As well, there’s Lola’s love interest, the strangely robotic, intellectually sharp, Asperger’s pinup boy, Wheat (Gig Clarke) who’s taken to wearing a balaclava, as a matter of course; eventually removed to reveal a mini-me Kramer, but without the physical afflictions.
A chaotic rollercoaster ensues: jockeys are suspected of heinous crimes and subjected to cruel, politically-incorrect humour; (come to think of it, is there any other kind?). Lola metamorphoses, overnight, from goody-two-shoes debating champ and apple of her father’s eye, to would-be-if-she could-be slut. All the while, Mitchell Butel, as Busby’s morally and otherwise bankrupt business partner, Whitman, hovers in the background, with an acerbically, brutally queer eye, for the straight guy (he’s brill).
Director Peter Evans presides over this Luna Park, bringing all the threads together to effect an as-good-as-it-gets semblance of happy ending. Richard Roberts must’ve been a pig in mud indulging his set designer’s fantasies with what looks like a mega-budget: it’s virtually a fully-fledged, fully-furnished revolving house, and more. Very impressive; if in the most conventional possible way (not that there’s anything wrong with that, or anything much).
As a matter of fact, it’s the sheer conventionality of this play that invites comparisons with the obvious and inevitable. I was put in mind of Williamson; ‘though Mc’s dialogue is faster, snappier, if not always sharper. I’m again reminded there’s nothing wrong with an utterly conventional play and, in many ways, dramatic conventionality (in an era in which playwrights and directors are falling over themselves to be ‘edgy’ and, as often as not, are just falling over) can prove a profound relief, to critic and paying punter alike. But on the slippery slope side of the equation, there’s always the danger of lapsing into stereotype, cliche, contrivance and veritable slapstick, whether it be in character development or overall form. The Grenade, I reckon, brings with it a little of both.
Matt Scott’s lighting design is unobtrusively effective and I was particularly engaged by David Franzke’s wild, strident compositions. And the actors, one and all, responded energetically, it appears to their roles, as written, and directed. Each leaps off the page, even if all their facets, including their names, make it that little bit harder to suspend disbelief and truly empathise. They border, at times, on caricature, which tends to deplete the more solemn impetus to which McNamara would lay claim.
But beyond, or before, reflection, consideration, and analysis, The Grenade shapes up, pretty much, as a thoroughly enjoyable play. It’s a relaxed and comfortable place to end up which may leave us a little guilty and unfulfilled. But there’s nothing wrong with guilty pleasure, is there?
Curtain Call rating: A-
The details: The Grenade plays the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until December 12. Tickets on the STC website.