Nikki Shiels, Matthew McFarlane and Adam Murphy in True Minds (Pic: Jeff Busby)

There’s never really been a great Australian sitcom, but maybe that’s because Joanna Murray-Smith’s never written one. True Minds, which opened at Melbourne Theatre Company’s Southbank Theatre last night, is television gold. Problem is, it’s two hours long, it’s happening on a stage, and there’s no way to change the channel.

Our heroine, Daisy (Nikki Shiels), is fresh from an appearance plugging her new book on The Today Show. Daisy’s mother Tracey (Genevieve Morris), a dippy new-ager in purple tie-dye, is on hand to quote from the book — “the smartest, most confident man in the world crumbles in the face of maternal opposition” — helpfully telegraphing the evening’s hijinks. Daisy’s taken up the He’s Just Not That Into You mantle with her he-won’t-marry-you-if-his-mother-doesn’t-like-you bestseller, and her book hangs there, stinking up the place like some Elizabeth Gilbert version of Chekhov’s gun. Daisy Lucille Balls her way around her apartment hiding rubbish in the oven, books under the couch and panties in the freezer in a panic; she’s about to meet her fiancé’s mother for the first time.

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Before dreaded future mother-in-law Vivienne Fairfax (Louise Siverson) — a sort-of lipsticked and pantyhosed Andrew Bolt, complete with her own radio show — knocks at the door, there’s a spanner or three lined up to be jammed into the works. Daisy’s just-out-of-rehab ex Mitch (Adam Murphy) turns up, a storm leaves fiancé Benedict (Matthew McFarlane) stranded on the tarmac, and her father Maxim (Alex Menglet), lefty intellectual and Vivienne’s arch rival, arrives. Hilarity ensues.

True Minds is very funny. Farce isn’t easy, but Murray-Smith makes it look like a public holiday sleep-in. But that’s kind of all there is; none of these incredibly broad characters has anything new or profound to say, even when the piece briefly descends into nature-of-love monologuing in its second half. It’s fluff. The jokes, the premise and the physical comedy would sing at 24-frames-per-second for 22 minutes, but on stage they’re pat. The arch-conservative mother’s an irredeemable bitch, the trust-fund fiancé’s an unloveable control freak, and the lefty intellectual’s always right. It’s boring and we’ve seen it all before.

Director Peter Houghton has the cast shouting and manically over-delivering lines like they’re paid by the laugh. The whole thing is arch and ridiculous. It’s tonally consistent, but the tone’s all wrong. Choreographed to within a millimetre of the life it does have, the play tumbles on at a wild, madcap tempo that would work if the cast were periwigged and powdered. Weirdly, the whole pantomime caper takes place on a quite good ultra-realistic apartment set by Tracy Grant Lord.

The elastic-faced Shiels as Daisy is fantastic, juggling physical comedy and vulnerability with ease. The whole cast is great, though McFarlane as Benedict is maybe the broadest of all, mugging, arching his eyebrows and locking his jaw in a boxy three-piece suit.

If you came across True Minds while flicking channels during a My Kitchen Rules commercial break, you’d stick with it. You’d probably even buy the DVD. On stage, it’s like a Krispy Kreme donut — immensely satisfying until you swallow.

The details: True Minds plays the Southbank Theatre until June 8. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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