Sylvia Keays and Daniel Hunter in Rocket Man | Tap Gallery

When the lights go up on Paul Gilchrist’s Rocket Man, we find Veronica, Ronnie (Sylvia Keays) sound asleep in a semi-foetal position in bed. Roaming the room in his undies, prowling like a stealthy lion or other big, cool cat, is Neil (Daniel Hunter). He’s prying, looking ’round the room, trying to get a fix on the one-night-stand-in he’s just had. He seems, on the one hand, benign; on the other, menacing. From the first, there’s something unsettling about his containment. There’s an intensity about him that’s puzzling. Fascinating. And worrying.

As Ronnie rouses from her slumbers, Neil confides the time. It’s 8.57. And she has to be up ‘n’ at ’em by 9am, as she has an audition. Yes, she’s an actor. Aren’t we all. This is the leading edge of Gilchrist’s cunning narrative duplicity. On the one hand, it permits an intermittent and incisive dissertation on the state of modern theatre. On the other, there’s an exposition of and meditation on the roles we play and the stories we tell ourselves and each other. Our own, personal narratives. The ones we have or prefer to believe and to which we stick fast, like bees to honey.

Speaking of bees, PG seems to have a big one n his bonnet. The poor bastard seems to be afflicted by a rare and painful condition. Conscience. In his case, it’s an acute social conscience; once contracted, practically incurable. Ironically, or pointedly, or both, he vents it on the art in which he’s immersed. Forswearing the we wish, mindless mantra that art can change minds, and the world, he uses Neil as his embittered, but seemingly good-natured mouthpiece to sink the slipper. Neil put it to Veronica that her ovation is self-indulgent and virtually meaningless and the quest for arts funding a competition for disbursements from the public purse in which, should theatre be the winner, something like juvenile dialysis might be the loser. But that comes later. At the beginning, Ronnie’s frantically ransacking her already ransacked wardrobe in search of a slinky garment to don for her reading. Yes, reading. It’s not an audition, but a reading. For Lady Macbeth. It’s an opportunity to detonate one of Gilchrist’s trademark comical grenades.

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Neil: She’s calm and cool, isn’t she?

Veronica: Fucking fuck! Fuck! Yeah, they think I’m a good fit.

The boot goes in harder and deeper from this point on. Easily offended thespians should stop reading now. A lot people are actors. Say they’re actors. Everyone’s an actor. If they can string a sentence together and aren’t horribly scarred from an industrial accident, they’re an actor. So says Neil, in his systematic taunting of Ronnie. And so says Paul, very knowingly and deliberately, in his systematic taunting of his arty audience. And remember, we’re Sydneysiders, so we take our pretensions very seriously. Paul, via Neil, is a smiling assassin. But his merciless excoriation doesn’t end there. He’s just warming up. For example, Neil recalls his participation in a play in Year 6, but I don’t call myself an actor. And, just a little later, comes the following blister. They go to drama school and, suddenly, they’re an actor. You can stand in a garage, but it doesn’t make you a car.

But the table turns, as Neil’s teases turn from merely blithe to seriously undermining. Perhaps, while on the one hand Gilchrist is hellbent on putting the blowtorch to the pretensions that pertain to theatre, on the other he’s as much champing at the bit to put the heat on those who’d tear it down. Noone can say he’s not evenhanded. There are jibes directed at mainstream, headline theatre companies. (The STC? Don’t they make baked beans?). Audiences. Writers. Directors. Venues directors call bohemian and councils call firetraps.

On the narrative level, earlier suspicions about Neil’s character are borne out. Things become ugly in an unexpectedly histrionic scene. Hunter and Keays graduate their respective roles with an uncommonly observant authenticity. Their characters’ multidimensionality is well-fleshed out on both page and stage, as are those of Ronnie’s stressed-to-the-eyeballs casualty nurse housemate (Alyssan Russell) and her nerdy, self-sacrificing boyfriend (Stephen Wilkinson). In fact, even allowing for some comical conceits, the characters are so believable and compelling, with their own implicit backstories, they could easily have a life in other plays. The casting is excellent and all performances live up to their promise.

Not everything is quite as honed or extrapolated as it might be but, for a 60-odd minute outing, it has an impressive and worthy density. Neil’s adopted profession of astronaut, lending the plaits title, is a crisp way of mocking the often empty space occupied by the theatre actor and both are starkly contrasted by the in-your-face, blood-and-guts vocation of Ronnie’s housemate, Claudia.

But the real protein here is in Gilchrist’s love-hate beef with art; performance art, especially. It’s a political posture, as much as anything but, unlike any the Abbotts of this word might adopt, one informed by conviction. Art is so often, and so comprehensively, the province of the bourgeois, pretentious, self-righteous and self-deluded, it’s not funny; doesn’t bear thinking about. Then again, it is; and does. Which, I think, is why Gilchrist has written this play. Their themes central to his work and I’m sure we’ll see and hear them again. But that’s OK. More than OK. Because who else is shining a hot spot in the eyes of culture and really interrogating it? It’s a dirty job. And Gilchrist has elected to do it. Very well.

The details: Rocket Man played the Tap Gallery on July 9-14.