The cast of The Beast | Southbank Theatre (Pic: Jeff Busby)

“Sometimes people get attached to a cause not just because they want to do good, but because they want to be seen to be doing good. And then the whole thing becomes about status.” So says Eddie Perfect, writer of Melbourne Theatre Company’s latest gem, The Beast.

Simon, Rob and Baird went to sea a year ago with the Skipper, for an easy day of drinks, fishing and mateship. It all went horribly wrong when the boat was damaged and lost somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Cabin fever set in and with the Skipper sent insane by dehydration and the certainty of death looming over them, something desperate had to be done. A year later, our three heroes are still struggling with what they did in the name of survival and so move to the countryside with their respective wives in pursuit of fresh air, organic food, and simpler, purer values. And that’s where the real tragedies occur.

Oddly enough, The Beast is a comedy. Grotesquely dark, it’s a belly laugh kind of hysterical, full of inappropriate jokes about racism, sexually transmitted diseases and murder. Helpmann Award winner Perfect is best known for his role as Mick in Offspring, but his talents extend way beyond the field of acting to a range of music, comedy and his new venture into scriptwriting. This is Perfect’s first play, but it has all the wit and social deconstruction of a theatre veteran, as he examines the true nature of unhappy people and the lengths they will go to in order to reassure themselves of their own self worth.

Hamish Michael is superbly sneering as the pompous and pretentious Simon, the one who seems to drive the sin within this group of friends. Michael’s arrogance is engaging; Simon is the kind of self-centred, self-important, self-righteous twit we all have to endure at some point in our lives, but Michael somehow makes him not only endurable, but downright hilarious. His wife Gen, played by Sheridan Harbridge, represents the repressed, frustrated housewife who grits her teeth and bears her life’s shackles and eternally struggles to make nice with her lying, cheating, manipulative husband.

Then there’s Rob and Sue, the couple who just keep smiling banally to disguise how truly miserable they are making each other. Rob (Tom Budge) is sweetly neurotic, while Sue (Virginia Gay) is domineering and controlling and driven by barely contained lust for the all too willing Simon. The true country bumpkins, Marge and Baird, are suffering an intense lack of intimacy since the tragedy on the boat, but they are the ones who are most sympathetic. Marge (Kate Mulvany) first appears on stage as a demonic silhouette, and she’s definitely no angel, but she is refreshingly honest, direct, and soft on the inside when it comes to her family, namely Baird. Baird (Travis Cotton) is dopey and loveable as he focuses all his energy on being a cowboy rather than deal with the grief that exists within is house.

The standout among all these extremely talented actors, though, is chameleon Hayden Spencer who adopts several different personas throughout the performance and never fails to deliver a convincing, three-dimensional character each time. Beginning the show as the ill fated Skipper, Spencer also plays Farmer Brown, Jason the wine connoisseur and Jan (pronounced Yahrrn) the over qualified town babysitter who is fundamentally not a paedophile.

What’s truly remarkable about The Beast is not just the flawless performances, but also the rich tapestry of dialogue that Perfect has woven. Realistic and natural at all times, the characters converse easily, despite their complex natures. The script is outrageous and more than borderline offensive, with offhand remarks such as “I don’t like black people” and “We probably have AIDS!” frequently cropping up, but somehow it gets away with it. The sheer nonchalance with which these incredible statements are made is what makes them so funny, along with the non-too subtle phallic symbolism and inhibited sexuality of everyone on stage. Some extreme physical comedy during the scenes of graphic violence will have you cringing and laughing at the same time, as will the simulated fellatio on random objects. Some inappropriate jokes about the Holocaust and paedophilia round the show off nicely, and an anticlimactic conclusion deliberately leaves the message of life ambiguous.

All in all, The Beast is yet another deluxe performance from the MTC. Funny, heartbreaking and politically incorrect, it’s a paragon of virtue

The details: The Beast plays the Southbank Theatre until November 9. Tickets on the company website.