Reviews/Perth Festival/Theatre

Blast from the past speaks to the present

2 March 2021

The combination of comic and poignant moments in Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company’s The Sum of Us wins Barbara Hostalek’s heart.

The Sum of Us, Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company ·
Subiaco Arts Centre, 26 February 2021 ·

It’s ok to be the “sum” of who you are.

That was the message from senior Noongar man and Aboriginal and queer rights activist Jim Morrison, in his Welcome to Country on opening night of Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company’s The Sum of Us at Subiaco Arts Centre.

The award-winning 1990 comedy, by Australian playwright David Stevens, is Yirra Yaakin’s first queer production. Presented as part of Perth Festival, it features an all First Nations cast, directed by Yirra Yaakin Artistic Director Eva Grace Mullaley.

Set in the 90s, The Sum of Us is the story of widower Harry (played by Bruce Denny), a doting father who just wants his kid to find love, and his son, the lonely-heart Jeff (Matt Cooper), who is an openly gay, footy-playing plumber. Father and son share tender moments and deep conversations about identity, intimacy and the past. Thirty years after the play’s premiere this remains a treat – we still don’t witness Australian men having such conversations very often, on or off stage.

Matt Cooper’s performance in the complex role of Jeff is faultless, his character’s identity and desires clearly defined and his moments of attraction, joy and sadness poignantly believable.

The device of breaking the fourth wall – having the performer address the audience directly – invites us closer into his relationship with his dad. There were moments when we felt we were part of the family.

Bruce Denny, as Harry, stands with his legs firmly planted and one hand on his hip, as he talks on a 1980's landline phone that is mounted on the wall. He's smiling.
Bruce Denny, as the observant and loving Harry. Photo: Cole Baxter Images

As the observant and loving solo parent Harry, Bruce Denny evokes a lot of laughs with his subtle gestures and laid-back manner. His performance goes deeper than simple entertainment, however, and I also enjoyed the gentle and tender moments between father and son.

On several occasions Jeff talks about wanting to define his own identity, not wanting to be limited or boxed in. I can’t help but wonder if Jeff is talking about his sexuality or about his Aboriginality. Is he addressing Aboriginal people who label him for his sexuality, or is he talking to mainstream society where his choices are limited because of his Aboriginality? Or is it both?

Though this is not clarified, the play deals skilfully with some of the challenges faced by gay men, balancing drama with plenty of good humour along the way.

And there is dancing! Choreographed by Claudia Alessi, the production is woven through with tangos and waltzes, building tension and exploring togetherness, the games we play and the moves we make on the way to build or destroy intimacy.

First-time actors with Yirra Yaakin Joshua Pether and Janine Oxenham bring flow and feeling to their supporting roles. Their movements on and off the dance floor are memorable and engaging; their gestures and subtle facial expressions held my gaze and captured my attention.

Bryan Woltjen’s set design take us back in time, with its 90’s-style feature wall and family photos that connect us to the past. Be warned, occasionally that journey back in time includes language that is now considered offensive.

Though elements of the script may be dated, the questions The Sum of Us raises about who is allowed to love whom, and which relationships are considered acceptable, are still relevant today.

No matter how you identify your gender, sexuality, ethnicity and social status, Yirra Yaakin’s take on The Sum of Us is not to be missed.

The Sum of Us continues until 7 March 2021, as part of Perth Festival.

Pictured top is Matt Cooper, who gives a faultless performance as Jeff. Photo: Cole Baxter Images

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Author —
Barbara Hostalek

Barbara Hostalek is an independent First Nations playwright proud to be living with Noongar Boodjar. She began writing plays at Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company’s Writers group in 2015. Her work has been produced by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company (Cracked), Black Swan Theatre Company (Unsung Heroes monologue series: Own Way) and Mudskipper Productions (Banned). Park fun play? Hands down, the sandpit.

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