Henri Szeps in WISH I'D SAID THAT 582

By dint of what’s almost certainly his best-known role (as Robbie, in Geoffrey Atherden’s Mother & Son) some people though he was a dentist, which gave him ammo for an earlier play. This time, Henri Szeps, a little older, has a different focus. Even amidst his incurable penchant for gags, his intentions seem earnest, serious, urgent and idealistic.

Through the medium of his character, Joe Bleakley, a retired actor, now confined to a pokey room in an old people’s home at the behest of his uncaring daughter, Szeps takes us on a somewhat haphazard, if lively, autobiographical journey.

Of course, sorting out fact from fiction is a purely speculative task. But the device is a useful one, even if Szeps, at times, seems to forget all about Joe, to give us more of Henri. Useful, because it allows for a narrative strand that meditates on the plight of older people, even as Szeps hurtles headlong down that track himself (‘though no faster than the rest of us).

As Joe, his mission is to develop a show for his fellow inmates, based on admired speeches by characters he’s never played. So Joe becomes not only a vehicle for commentary on aging more generally, but a prism through which we can look closely into the heart and mind of a fading actor, a has-been, who never really was. His clawing and clamour to achieve mediocrity has left him resigned, rather than bitter; his salve for deep regret and gnawing frustration is his humble, parting theatrical gesture, grand in its way. Joe gives Szeps licence for jokes like: “Did you hear about the Australian actor who got a New York agent, so he can be unemployed all over the world?”

Joe is a likable, gregarious character for whom it’s easy to feel sympathy, much like Szeps himself. We get an insight not just into Joe, but Szeps, through Joe, I think: he’s a man constantly in motion, in performance, cracking jokes, citing epithets, quoting witticisms; a veil for a man who, privately, it would seem, is given to reflection, philosophy, a global perspective, deep thought and feeling.

He begins with a speech from Lear, which he delivers with great conviction and candour, in an offhand style that works as well as, or better than, any I’ve yet seen. It’s a pithy parallel to the father-daughter status of Joe and Valerie.

From there he drives us down countless roads, byways and dimly-lit lanes, to explore the contours of the human soul. It doesn’t all work seamlessly; it’s not always silky-smooth, but nor is the life he describes. His. Or ours. His eyes avert when a man is having a choking coughing fit and noisily leaves the theatre. One has a sense it’s probably more out of concern than distraction, or lack of discipline. Perhaps Henri shows even more of himself than he intends.

He borrows from Neil Simon, Edith Piaf, unspecified wits (“the missing link between apes and civilised beings might be us”), Oscar Hammerstein II (I just like the ring of the whole name), Eugene O’Neill (Tyrone, from Long Day’s Journey), Fiddler On The Roof and peppers poignancy with Irish, Jewish and other jokes. (“How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, man; practice.”)

By way of the above, he talks sensibly, simply and persuasively about racism, global warming and what it is to be human (“we don’t wake up in the morning and say to ourselves, I think I’ll ruin my life today; it takes time”, or words to that effect). To exact sense and sensibility on bigotry, he quotes from South Pacific. It works. This engaged and energetic man, who studied science and engineering while being tutored by Hayes Gordon at the Ensemble, has a knack, a talent, for finding the essential even in the seemingly trivial; the universal in popular culture, as much as in literature or high art. But the greater skill is in being able to string these disparate elements together into a cohesive whole, making for something that falls comfortably between a good-humoured ethical treatise and rabbinic ramble.

Wish I’d Said That is a kind of handbook for living; the gospel according to Szeps; life 101; survival for dummies. Better yet, it seems heartfelt and utterly, disarmingly sincere. When Szeps, or Joe, tears up, he doesn’t seem to have to work at it, or rely on stage trickery. The Impossible Dream seems to move him that much, betraying the sensitivity of a man who dreams the impossible dream every night. Even if he spends his days entertaining with the best of ‘boom-boom!’ banter.

This is a very personal patchwork; a pastiche of surprisingly profound proportions. It turns out Szeps, whatever his future as an actor, might have a very bright one as a writer. In fact, what would be interesting would be to see another actor in his shoes. Not necessarily better, just interesting. After all, sometimes another can find different things in a text than even the writer knew to be there. Both script and performance could use a little polish; but this may come, subsequent to opening night. In any case, the slight rough-and-readiness is somehow, part of its, and his, charm, which he has in spades. The sheer heart of the piece renders any dramatic falters insignificant.

If there’s one caveat, it’s that Henri Szeps is probably never going to really make it, or fake it, as a singer, which is a pity for a man who clearly loves to sing. Or would love to be able. (Does anyone remember Don Lane?)

Now, if we can just get David Williamson to turn to acting…

Curtain Call rating: A

The details: Wish I’d Said That plays the Ensemble Theatre until January 29. Tickets through the Ensemble box office.

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