Colin Friels and Josh McConville in Moving Parts | Parade Playhouse

Moving Parts is what happens, perhaps, when a copywriter sets out to make his mark as a playwright. I should qualify. I, too, am a copywriter. It was my first career and remains, at least in part, as such. So it’s through no snootiness or condescension that I say this. If anything, I probably wish David Nobay had succeeded more comprehensively with Moving Parts.

Moving Parts is apt, for while it has moving parts that are reasonably well-oiled with smart, snappy dialogue, yet the whole is somehow less than the sum of them: it’s a play that, despite the threat of a dangerous weapon, doesn’t really ever reach any dramatic crescendo (it draws a blank) and it ends flatly, abruptly and without any real conclusion. It has all the trappings of a great play and is, evidently, trying to emulate the mood and timbre one might associate with and find in, say, a Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams play, but it proves to be a triumph, only, of style over content and, as such, is tantamount to something of a theatrical hoax. It’s the emperor’s new play.

This is ironic since, despite lay cynicism about the motives and methods of advertising, the last thing it can have, in order to be successful, is style without content. It must have style, but the content comes first: it must have a substantial premise and promise. It’s described as a darkly comic thriller but, while darkly comic, it’s in the most mild-mannered, lightweight kind of way and, as to thriller, well, it doesn’t exactly have you white-knuckled, with racing pulse. Still, director Steve Rogers and his actors, Colin Friels and Josh McConville, milk what’s available to the very best of their abilities and, thanks to their efforts, the play just creeps over the line as a passable evening’s entertainment.

It must be said, Steven Jones-Evans’ production design is impressive, in recreating the ambience of a high street London jeweller’s shop. So, too, Russell Boyd’s (yes, that one) lighting. Colin Friels is the jeweller, proud of his profession and the kind of life, and living, it’s enabled. He’s a little bit Arf’r Daley, i’n’ ‘e? A savvy working-class geezer made good and affecting the airs of a toff. As he pedantically tidies his shop just before closing time, in walks a young bloke, keen to buy a watch. Or so he says. What ensues is a slowly unfurling confrontational meeting between an estranged father and son, peppered with pseudo-poetical metaphors relating to timepieces. Secrets, lies, misunderstandings and repressed feelings are all in evidence, but the worm hardly registers the pathos.

The idea is good, but the execution lacklustre, notwithstanding valiant and characterful performances, especially from Friels. So, no, it doesn’t take us ‘deep into the heart of the human condition’, as touted. It tickles the surface, creating a ripple rather than a tidal wave. It all comes across as a contrived, intellectual exercise, rather than one inspired by the kind of passion generally born of experience.

One of the most interesting sidelights of the production is that, unbelievably, it’s the first time Friels has performed at NIDA since graduation there. And the fact that it’s one of the most interesting sidelights, or footnotes, in relation to this production tends to say a lot. Not even dramaturgy by Steven Sewell and Suzy Miller has been able to rescue this critically endangered species from extinction. And their names by no means complete the long who’s who of film and theatrical talent on-board for this outing. It couldn’t look better, on paper. An embarrassment of riches. A virtual artistic coup. Not to mention marketing one. Still, however, not enough. The result on the stage droops, like too many takes shooting a scene for a porn flick. And, again, that ending: it’s like lumbering ’round in an old clunker that finally just sputters and conks out.

There are moments of thematic and narrative interest, but these are opportunities that remain unexploited, as we skip stones over the slippery, elusive surface of the human condition, failing, time and again to really penetrate it in any memorable, visceral or emotionally-charged way. Authenticity is what’s missing. So, a moment that might’ve been momentous? Well, the unprepossessing man with his nose pressed up against the glass has to be buzzed in, which affords an opportunity for discussion between the protagonists about how Roy (Friels) knows who to let in, when and why. This could’ve been teased out to great topical effect, given, for example, the knee-jerk policies re asylum seekers being put about as I write that pander to incurable xenophobics.

We touch the area lightly, but fly away. The gloves never come off.

Moving Parts is a play that, after closing, I fear, is likely to be put out to pasture, remembered as a bold but failed experiment, as it rusts away in the back paddock. No matter how good the craft, or how crafty the crafter, there’s no substitute for raw feeling and wrenching, brutal honesty. That means writing that comes from the heart, not the head.

The details: Moving Parts plays the Parade Playhouse until August 10. Tickets via Ticketek.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey