Home Economics - TheatreWorks (VIC)
Reviewed by Caitlin Kearney
TheatreWorks, St Kilda
Playing until February 3rd, 2024
A visceral exploration of how the mess and temptations of food and sex intersect in our everyday lives
As a born and bred Sydneysider starting a fresh Melburnian chapter this week, I've been excited for my first Theatre Thoughts outing in a new city and this production of Declan Greene’s Home Economics provides plenty to be excited about. A set of five vignettes that has been pared back to three for this production, the play is an exploration of some of the vastly different places where the mess and temptations of food (and related substances) and sex intersect and represents a bold and necessarily morally dubious celebration of this interplay.
Outside on the street, there is very little to signal the presence of anything so titillating as an explosives factory- a Google Maps search that has no doubt got me on some undesirable list somewhere. The theatre is all but hidden away, accessible to the audience by a small door in a back alley. Inside, the space is teeming with audience life, and is entirely framed by generous swathes of what appear- on closer inspection- to be numerous translucent shower curtains joined together to create structural draping, accented by shimmering silver plastic fringe where the cast enter and exit. My guest comments that it is like being inside a giant plastic bag, and yet the effect is quite elegant verging on something of beauty- playful yet luscious. Appropriately flippant; campy, food-themed pop hits play in the background as we take our seats.
The evening commences with a monologue from an ordinary teenage girl who has done extraordinary damage to her teeth with compulsive sugar overindulgence and a completely non-existent relationship with a toothbrush. This character alone makes up the majority of this vignette, and the characterisation is generally wonderful, with moments of comedic gold realised by the awkward earnestness universally emblematic of adolescent girls and femmes. In the new tradition of Yve Blake’s Fangirls or Michael Louis Kennedy’s All the Fraudulent Horse Girls, this character manages to resemble something the audience recognises without getting caught on any self-indulgent millennial nostalgia of what teen girlhood is or was- something that seems to be plaguing independent theatre a little at the moment. The two schoolboys featuring in this story are equally recognisable, and I experience a shiver of recognition at the palpable underlying distaste in all their actions towards the protagonist. I also find myself having an entertainingly visceral response to the sloppy abandon with which the food items are handled- an essential part of presenting this text.
the characterisation is generally wonderful, with moments of comedic gold realised by the awkward earnestness universally emblematic of adolescent girls and femmes.
There are pacing and stagecraft issues in the transition to the second vignette, and the uncertainty brought about by this may be partly responsible for distracting me a little from understanding what exactly the given circumstances must be for the new scene. A shrewd sex worker and an entitled businessman are seated for dinner in an upscale restaurant, and the persisting convention is that either of them can hit a bell in the centre of the table whenever they decide to opt out of the moment and change the direction of the conversation, the lights dimming momentarily each time.
Despite all of this being clear, it still took me some minutes to get a mental grasp on how the passage of time was being demonstrated- if there were always time jumps at each hit of the bell or if the dialogue was actually just very disjointed- and I realised later that there were several issues at play; the history (or even lack thereof) of the relationship between the two characters was not clearly evident in the tone of their interactions or reactions to each other, which meant that I was confused when it came to stakes and could track no narrative shape through their exchanges.
On top of this, it became apparent that certain moments were being rushed through in favour of capitalising on certain others, which meant that a lot of opportunities for context were all but thrown away. I will say that although these two performers were imperfect as scene partners, they are each fully committed to their own characters and very watchable individually.
In the third and final story, we are introduced to a home economics/food technology teacher at an all-boys high school, as well as his doting older husband and a student named Phillip who is giving him grief. Phillip is a supremely confident, brazenly queer student who seems hell-bent on leading the teacher into temptation, a matter greatly complicated by the fact that the teacher is, indeed, tempted. The audience is challenged to sit in the struggle between amusement at the absurdly daring antics of Phillip, discomfort at the implications, and pity for the plight of the teacher (which ultimately turns to disgust when he gives up on controlling himself).
We are placed to consider that the victim in this scenario is not the usual suspect, with the normally protected class of character now holding all the power and filling something of a villain role. I find it difficult to fully comprehend how, written and directed with this perspective, this story gels into a triptych with the previous two, given that we have more or less been positioned to empathise with the natural underdog up until this point. It’s an interesting choice for Midsumma, although not a bad one- after all, queer theatre doesn’t need to be hopeful, uplifting, or “acceptable” to be worthy.
such opportunities carry with them the responsibility to hold space for the audience to experience the writing rather than get caught up in enjoying a moment too much.
The actor portraying the teacher’s flamboyantly warm and supportive husband feels like he is performing in a different scene/play- I laugh more at his bizarrely heightened interpretation than I do at any other point in the evening- and the effect is actually not undesirable, as it quite cleverly emphasises the sinister nature of the relationship between teacher and student.
Overall, this is an enjoyable if not especially polished production from an obviously talented company of well-cast artists. Missing in the direction is the understanding that there is- as with any Declan Greene offering- plenty of shock value embedded in the script without encouraging performances occasionally too jarring to be digestible (no pun intended).
There is a danger with work as provocative as this- and we see this often with productions of works by playwrights such as Philip Ridley- to get carried away with self-satisfaction. Getting the opportunity to make an audience squirm can be enormously fun, but such opportunities carry with them the responsibility to hold space for the audience to experience the writing rather than get caught up in enjoying a moment too much.
PLAYWRIGHT Declan Greene
PRODUCTION MANAGER Kate Speakman
DIRECTOR Stephanie Lee
SET DESIGNER Filipe Filihia
COSTUME DESIGNER Lousia Fitzgerald
LIGHTING DESIGNER Tom Vulcan
SOUND DESIGNER Jackie van Lierop
DRAMATURG Zack Lewin
STAGE MANAGER Emma Parfitt
Alfie BakerIan Ferrington, Edan Goodall, Sarah Iman, Marko Pecer, Shanu Sobti, Charlie Veitch