With powerful performances and impeccable staging, Kate Champion’s direction of Andrew Bovell’s Things I Know To Be True impresses David Zampatti, even if he has some doubts about the play.
Things I Know To Be True, Black Swan State Theatre Company
Heath Ledger Theatre, 31 May 2023
We love our “perfect families”; mum, dad and the kids gathered in the lounge room or out on the back patio, bordered by dad’s prize roses, shaded by the gum tree.
We know its setting and its conventions, we can decipher its codes, we recognise its people and settle in to see what the playwright has in store for them.
In the case of Things I Know To Be True, Andrew Bovell (Lantana, Strictly Ballroom, When the Rain Stops Falling, The Secret River) is about to put them through the wringer.
The Price family, of safe-as-houses suburban Booragoon, are Bob (Humphrey Bower), Fran (Caroline Brazier) and their adult children Rosie (Laura Shaw), Mark (Kaz Kane), Ben (Will O’Mahony) and Pip (Emma Jackson). Apart from young Rosie, the kids have left home, but the apples haven’t fallen far from the tree. Yet.
Bob is sixty-three and five years retired to his garden. Fran still works as a nurse. Pip, now married with two young children, is forging a career as a curriculum developer. Ben, to judge by the flash new “European” car he pulls up in, is killing the pig in finance. Mark and Rosie are still finding themselves, Rosie on a gap year trip to Europe.
But Rosie has returned suddenly, home and broken-hearted after a romantic disaster in Berlin. Bovell then assembles a layer cake of escalating, unwelcome surprises for the Prices as Pip and Mark both announce life-changing events.
We spend the interval wondering what else could befall the family. Ben arrives soon after to let us know that more shocks await them.
As you’d expect from a writer as skilled and well-organised as Bovell, the play’s architecture has a solid dramatic structure and plenty of insight into what makes families bind together, what tears them apart and what brings them back together.
There are relatable observations about what family love is, what we accept or can’t accept as a substitute for it, what expectations we impose on each other and what can happen if we ignore, or worse, rebel against them.
These are things we know to be true, but too often the play feels like it’s ticking boxes, with characters that seem to be reading from a compendium of tropes rather than living real lives.
That leads to some odd blind alleys – one an extended run of dialogue between Fran and Pip revolving around Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat that feels shoe-horned into the text, and must have been bewildering for those who don’t know it.
It also makes the play seem unstuck in time. There are enough references (FaceTime calls etc.) in the play to place it in the present day, but just as many that feel anachronistic.
No more so than its humour, which comes almost entirely from gormless comic incursions by Bob into otherwise grim conversations that make him more like a 1980s Ted Bullpit than a believable contemporary character.
Those issues aside, Kate Champion’s Black Swan debut at the helm of Things I Know To Be True is faultlessly staged and performed.
Zoë Atkinson’s set, subtly lit by Mark Howett, is a model of simplicity and efficiency while perfectly capturing the geography of the Price suburban castle, and Ash Gibson Greig’s sophisticated soundscape murmurs menacingly beneath the action as the family unravels.
Things I Know To Be True is essentially the story of Bob and Fran’s long marriage, the fires that have waned and the unseen, unspoken sparks that can still ignite. Caroline Brazier’s highly-charged performance dominates the play, as her Fran rules the family with a kind of desperate strength. While Bower has a formidable challenge to keep Bob believable at times, he finds great power in both his anger and grief to deliver a fine performance.
Each of the Price children are precisely identified by Kane, O’Mahony, Jackson and, particularly, Shaw in noteworthy individual and ensemble performances.
Things I Know To Be True says that you can be fond but not in love. That’s a fair observation to apply to this impressive production of an imperfect play.
Pictured top are Caroline Brazier, as Fran, and Humphrey Bower, as Bob. Photo: Daniel J Grant
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