Sara West and Helen Buday in Babyteeth | Belvoir St Theatre

Marry Packed To The Rafters (or even Neighbours) with Beaches and you’ve got Rita Kalnejais’ Babyteeth, directed by Eamon Flack. With set designer Robert Cousins and lighting designer Niklas Pajanti, especially, as well as an interesting cast, Flack has done his level best to get the most out of it. Composer Alan John and sound designer Steve Francis have also enhanced the dramatic possibilities no end, with an unusual and exceptionally well-considered score.

Kalnejais seeks to examine the spaces between words and thoughts and achieves this remarkably well. It’s just a shame her study has to be embedded in a kid-gets-cancer-and-dies story. Call me callous and unfeeling, but the sad truth is I didn’t really feel anything much at all. It’s all too contrived: one of those outings that seeks to have the audience feel what’s expected of it and most of the opening night crowd appeared, dutifully, to abide. I would’ve been happy to comply, but found myself restless and imbued more with a sense of give-me-a-break tedium than compassion. A journey into the everyday, garden-variety lives of ordinary people is more than fine with me, but I didn’t discern much, if any, of “the violent sweetness” of life promised. There’s nothing really sweet about juvenile cancer, no matter which way you look at it.

The revolving, Lazy Susan set (not withstanding, sorry to be old-fashioned, some questionable, variable sightlines) works very effectively as a metaphor for the merry-go-round that is life and in terms of setting-up changes of location. Many familiar domestic details are thoughtfully built-in as well.

The action springs to life over the kitchen table at brekky, with Anna (Helen Buday) trying to sublimate her overflowing anxiety by insistently offering to make pancakes for her rather more composed shrink hubby Henry (Greg Stone). She’s definitely sweating the small stuff. And who can blame her? Both Anna and Henry know, as does their suffering daughter Milla (Sara West), their world is about to change, irrevocably, forever. Milla’s treatment is failing and she’s in increasing agony. Anna copes by pretending everything’s steady-as-she-goes while, inwardly, her emotional boat rocks to the point of capsizing. Henry, in a calm, apparently collected, and considered way, falls back on the knowledge and wisdom gleaned from his professional training. Well that, and heroin.

Milla’s probably having as much difficulty dealing with her parents as they are with her inevitable demise; one of the ironies of caring deeply. She finds solace in a seemingly arbitrary flirtation (with Moses, played by Eamon Farron) at a train station. But the very appeal probably lies in  its arbitrary nature: she’s looking understandably to break free. After all, she’s got nothing left to lose, except her life. So she’s utterly unfazed when Moses puts the hard word on her for money, concocting a sob story about eviction, when he probably just wants to score. She seems to know, but not care. She’s intrigued and gives herself over to going with the flow; taking the journey, wherever it may lead.

Henry tries valiantly to be realistic, mature and sensible about his daughter’s new focus of affection. Anna has to battle harder. As is so often the case when a child falls gravely ill, Henry and Anna struggle to cope individually, let alone find anything much remaining to support each other. Sometimes, the pathos of this reality is squandered, such as in a throwaway scene, played for laughs, in Henry’s office, in which the couple propose to have spontaneous sex, a relief they both desperately need. It’s a genuine pity it had to succumb to sitcom cliché.

The added, overlaid complications of Henry’s addiction, let alone Anna’s reliance on tranquillisers, or Moses’ former dealer status, seem to lay it on a little too thick; with a trowel, rather than a teaspoon. And that’s really the problem with the play overall. Subtlety isn’t a hallmark. It’s all a bit too attention-seeking. And busily so, such that character development is haphazard.

Russell Dykstra’s Latvian violin tutor Gidon is a skilful, credible portrayal, but the script pokes so much fun at his ethnicity he can’t help but end up more like a cartoon than mere brash eccentric, hiding the light of homespun wisdom under a thickly-accented bushel. Still and all, at least he symbolically transcends the stitched-up Anglo ‘propriety’ and code of conduct which infects and inhibits the others and our society per se.

The only over escapee from repression is pregnant, clueless next-door-neighbour Toby (Kathryn Beck), an apparently unwed mother-to-be who befriends Henry (even if “it’s a dog’s name!”). Her open, positive outlook is as liberating for Henry as Gidon’s brutal frankness proves for Anna. If there’s any finesse at all it’s in these relationships, which are more finely calculated an calibrated than the others. The vaguest sense of unfaithfulness pervades and implies an unhappy kind of sweetness, but not a violent type.

If you’re idea of a good play, or entertainment generally, is a cleansing, purging sob, brought on by the usual circumstantial suspects, you’ll adore Babyteeth and revile me and my review. So be it. It’s not as bad as having teeth pulled, but it does give me a dull ache, and longing, for something more original.

But I can’t take anything away from the cast or crew, who’ve done a sterling job. Any aggravations with roles rest with the writing.

The details: Babyteeth plays Belvoir St’s Upstairs Theatre until March 18. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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