Review: Spencer

Katy Warner kicks another goal for Australian theatre with Spencer. Family comic drama at its finest.

As perfect examples of the collision between perfectly timed gross-out comedy and heartfelt emotional pay off go, the scene-stealing appearance of stringy, slimy boogers late in the game of new Australian play Spencer is right up there.

To audible retching noises in the audience, the scene in question is a mess of the very best kind, a perfect encapsulation of gifted playwright Katy Warner’s latest spot-on slice of Australian life.

Presented by theatre company Lab Kelpie, it also involves Lyall Brooks, star of Warner’s previous adroit hit A Prudent Man, which depicted the downfall of an ego-driven, double-talking politician. Here he plays Ben, an out-of-shape, potty-mouthed and faux macho former could-have-been footy player, largely by his own reckoning, who now coaches kids in Auskick. Living with and attracting almost constant criticism from commanding mother Marilyn (Jane Clifton) the pair are preparing their humble home for a big party to welcome the Spencer of the title, the two-year-old son Marilyn’s golden boy and actual AFL player Scott (Jamieson Calwell) never knew he had.

For domineering single mum Marilyn, ruling over her dodgy carpeted domain replete with kitsch wood-panelled walls, battered mustard-coloured sofa and 80s green glass pendant lights, Scott is the shot at the big time they never had. The appearance of Spencer is the crowning glory, even if the circumstances, the name and the surprise mother are definitely not approved. Boisterous Ben loves his younger brother, but can’t help but feel lost in his shadow.

Nerves are running high all round and then nervy Scott’s sister Jules (Fiona Harris) shows up too, needing a place to stay after having quit the latest in a long line of short-lived jobs. Their absentee and largely oblivious father Ian (Roger Oakley), whom Jules spent years writing whish lists about what they would do together when he returned before eventually giving up, isn’t far behind.

None of the siblings will call Ian dad and Marilyn wants no bit of it, suspecting he’s back to lay claim to the house. As the hours tick towards Spencer’s grand arrival, the house, so fretted over, festooned with bunting and presents, tips gradually into disarray as old scores are settled and home truths levelled.

Directed with great skill by Sharon Davis through multiple fade out scenes that allow each character to interact on a painstakingly intimate level. Holding back the madness from unravelling into outright farce as the drinks of disillusionment begin to flow, aided in no small part by Warner’s incredible observational eye, this inherently Australian family is also universal.

We can all recognise the frayed relations, the desperate need for acceptance and reward, the desire to do one’s best for all, even if that perception is a little warped. The perfectly human foibles on show are too true and even bad behaviour is of the mundane kind.

In reaction to Ian’s inability to be there for his kids and arrogant belief that he could step back in and be welcomed, my plus one for the night ran the emotional gamut from wanting to call her biological father after and let loose at his shortcomings to accepting peace with what just wasn’t to be.

We agreed, too, that Clifton stole the show with Marilyn’s overbearing fussiness that nonetheless maintained our affections, offering glimpses of a big beating hart underneath the armour. Hers was not an unkind love, she just had to make do brining up three kids on her own, deflecting her dreams down the line from one child to another with Scott and, through him, Spencer the next best hope. For Calwell’s part, Scott’s nervously conveyed niggling doubts about whether he can be that man for either her or his son would be recognisable to most of us.

Rob Sowinski and Bryn Cullen’s incredibly detailed set – walls cluttered with family portraits, clanging fly screen back door and oversized 90s stereo on a bookshelf– similarly conveys cosy nostalgia, plays just as vital a role. Guided impeccably by Warner and Davis, Spencer’s sublime observational comedy keeps the drama close to home and, in so doing, achieves the kind of greatness that grabs you heart and soul, snot and all.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords

★★★★1/2

Lab Kelpie’s Spencer is at Chapel off Chapel until May 28, book tickets here.