Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness

Reviewed by Sam Coward

La Boite and Sydney Theatre Company

The Roundhouse

Paul Bishop as Edward Gant. Image by Al Caeiro

“Boring the audience is the one true sin in theatre. We’ve been boring audiences for decades now…”Anthony Neilson (The Guardian 21st March 2007)

The most talked about show of the year opened last night at The Roundhouse…and was anything but boring. A colourful and enthusiastic full house enjoyed this most unique and unusual theatrical experience.

Brought to life by the collaborative geniuses of La Boite Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company, Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness lived up to the hype surrounding its Brisbane premiere. In this production, we find another example of a simple story told superbly, entertaining the ever-increasing appetite of the Brisbane theatre community.

First time main stage director, Sarah Goodes, has allowed her imagination to run wild and in her words, “everyone has been able to dive deep into their theatrical tool kit” to deliver this magical piece; the first-born for this joint venture between these two companies. Goodes has assembled an impressive team of creatives and has demanded a lot from the show’s production elements, which, without exception, surpass expectation.

Edward Gant explores the wondrous, grotesque, the beautiful and the bizarre; the scene is set as the vaudevillian freak show fills the room. Design and production elements, as you would expect from a production of this calibre, are brilliant. Renee Mulder (set design) has delivered a functional and gritty workplace, raw and open, yet magical and full of promise; the clever central rotunda serving as its main feature, with multiple traps and other hidden trickery adding to the carnival mystery. With exposed costume racks and gantry, we are informed that this is a travelling troupe; here only briefly to tell their tales, then tramp on with their small hands and cabbage cologne.

Lighting, by Damien Cooper, was a production element highlight, truly transforming locations and enhancing mood with precision and sensitive clarity. I loved the use of lead lights as footers and then as hand-helds for effect. On the same set and with light alone, we were taken to Nepal. Now, I am usually critical of these elements and often feel I am being asked a lot of, to go where the story leads, but in this instance I was swept up and away, utterly convinced.

Romance Was Born, responsible for the costuming and clearly settling into a relationship with STC that works like a charm, created a wardrobe that was, in a word, superb. Each character was clearly identifiable and the detail and degree of difficulty in some of the pieces was pure artwork. The pimple mask in particular. Special mention must also go to the stage manager (Sue Benfer) and hands involved in this production, as the many and complex effects and mechanics were seamless and most impressive.

Image by Al Caeiro

From the outset, we meet the troupe and are invited by Gant (Paul Bishop) to come along for the ride as they prepare to entertain us; we, the audience, are under no illusion that this is a troupe performing sequential stories in true vaudevillian style. As leader of the troupe, Bishop is outstanding. I was eager to see how he tackled this large contemporary character; I am happy to report it was with commitment and skill. Every subtlety and nuance clearly controlled but never contrived, his posturing and physicality embodying the snake oil merchant or travelling evangelist and portraying warmth towards his creation and his troupe. This was most noticeable when he was merely observing. There was a genuine quality about his performance that belied the show’s form, and yet like most things with this show, as head bending as that sounds, it worked.

Lindsay Farris. Image by Al Caeiro.

Lindsay Farris, playing Nicholas Ludd, brought a roguish masculinity to the stage. No sooner had this been nicely established, he proceeded to embody a more than believable gorgeous sister in the first of the two stories to be told as per the whim of the playwright, Neilson or by the director, Goodes; at this point, who can tell? Everything is spinning, up is down, left is right and pimples are full of cheese……wait, I’ll finish this later for reasons you will later learn. Farris provides the rebel factor and spars well with the experienced Bishop, we get to see the full gamut of performance in Farris; comedy, tragedy, real, absurd and even a black face Indian healer (yes, they use black face, yes it works, yes it fits the style and era that they are depicting and yes I and everyone else laughed and loved it. I thought I should make that clear before moving on). For me, some of the shows highest highs involved this exciting young actor and I will follow his career with great anticipation.

Bryan Probets, playing Jack Dearlove, provides the show’s funny bone, with a character instantly identifiable and akin to the dad in Strictly Ballroom. Probets’ physical humor, timing and pathos give a sense of the most comfortable stage professional I have seen. His loyalty to Gant and his own broken existence are displayed with pathetic perfection.

Emily Tomlins, as Madame Poulet, beguiled us as loyal player and aloof devotee of Gant. I saw Emily in last year’s Sydney Fringe Festival, in A Tiny Chorus and saw many of the traits from that character carry into her Madame Poulet. The consummate storyteller, Tomlins has the rare ability of being able to convey several emotions simultaneously; perhaps it’s the kind of multi tasking that is magnified by being the only female in this ensemble. Her characters: the ugly sister, the jam roll junkie love interest of Sgt Jack and (believe it or not) a teddy bear, Tomlins brings a truth to her work and an endearing quality that allows you to feel everything she does.

The characters traverse their inbuilt production landscape of the Carnival with the workman like commitment you would expect of a troupe in this era and form, the show rolls on from the first story to the next and is halted abruptly by Gant, who wishes not to pursue its telling and leaves the performance within and without at a stand still. Some poetic impro from Ludd attempts to stabilise the show but he is suddenly lost for words and Gant reappears as the Phantom of the Dry: another device of Gant’s trickery. As Ludd trudges on, we meet the teddy bear, now…stop…wait a minute…where this came from I have no idea and I am not a hundred percent sure that it worked as intended. Yes, the micro story of the life of a young boy’s bear was beautiful but what it was doing here in the play I can’t explain. Either it didn’t quite come off or it could simply be another example of Neilson’s mind intercourse at work. In any event it did lead us to the ultimate falling out between Gant and Ludd. Ludd decides he can no longer be party to such whimsical nonsense and chooses to go off in search of a greater truth, upon which all is revealed and the stories told are closer to home than you would have believed…or else missed altogether if it were not for one last, clever line.

The opening night audience was very vocal in their appreciation. In fact, the laughter came thick and fast and from my seat, often seemed unwarranted. For me this show was more beautiful than it was funny. Like any good Vaudeville, it had its share of innuendo, vomit, bum and gross jokes but the simmering undertones resonated louder for me than the giggle material. Perhaps that’s the genius of the writer: to concoct a script that can speak to several layers of each audience. The twist of form from Vaudeville to realism to clowning and beyond gives this show a sense of radical freedom and a true sense of creation.

All told, it is a very slick, sensational piece of theatre: bold, challenging, cheese-filled pimples and all. Perhaps Gant himself best sums up what was witnessed in The Roundhouse last night: “In a world where death is at our shoulder every hour, even the smallest act of creativity is a marvellous, courageous thing.”

Be sure to catch this marvellous, courageous thing before the caravan heads south to Sydney.

Emily Tomlins. Image by Al Caeiro.

P.S. Pimples aren’t filled with cheese; they’re filled with pearls. Everyone knows that.

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