Double bills are difficult to produce well. Presenting multiple works within a single night is bound to come with challenges for stage management, advertising, directors, and actors, however the most important factor to consider is programming. The choice to program two shows, one after the other, with a 20 minute intermission in between demands stamina from the actors, strength from the writing, commitment from the director, and engagement from the audience. With two very different shows I was left with two completely different responses.

The Picnic

The first work, The Picnic, was an all round entertaining and heartwarming piece of theatre. With effortless writing and creative direction, the work was a strong beginning for the Backyard Double Bill evening. 

I was already a fan of Tremayne Gordon before seeing this particular show, and my faith that this show was going to be as good as his playwriting history was rewarded. Gordon’s writing is fun, witty, sharp, but most importantly it is genuine. His characters are believable in their construction, relatable in their situations and somehow still all very individual in voice and perspective.

I have always found that Gordon’s strength as a writer lies in his ability to capture the essence of strangers meeting for the first time. In this instance, Gordon’s four characters, Beth (Meghan Bowden) Shaun (George Goldfeder), Maggie (Gemma Elsom) and Cat (Tess Middleton), all come together for what would be an absolute nightmare for those of us who suffer from even the slightest amount of social anxiety: a picnic where their only mutual friend hasn’t arrived for his own birthday party. Stuck together waiting, the four characters connect, disconnect, fight, flirt and form friendships all in a show less than an hour long.

Bowden and Goldfeder are the strongest of the cast. Through the show the two actors both present charismatic characterisation individually as well as sharing a chemistry and mutual respect during their intimate moments together. Bowden is definitely a standout; her voice is confident and her mannerisms enthralling. Goldfeder, however, brings a grounded and more gentle male presence that keeps the three female cast members just under the line of chaos. That is, until, he himself loses it as well.

Kristen Maloney’s direction was creative and engaging for the most part. The actors physicalised their lines, gestures, use of props, and movement like rigid dolls in a quirky, and sometimes creepy, activation of the text. This technique was predominantly effectual, pushing the anxious scenario and awkward conversation to the forefront of the audience’s focus.

Interestingly, a slight (but clearly deliberate) movement of bodies or chairs replaced the majority of the need for props in what became a clever and inventive trope throughout the show. These techniques bordered on becoming a stale after the performance reached its climax, however a gradual transition away from the rigid spines and cheesy grins in the final fifteen minutes rescued what could have been an overdose of alienating physicalisation.

Other positives included a drummer (Andrew Barnes, also an actor in the second piece) who accompanied the action with a beat that enhanced the regular comedic moments and furthered tension and pace in the more stressful and strenuous scenes.

However, the use of a long strip of butcher’s paper to create a film projection backdrop was not enough to save the show’s problematic use of tech and multimedia. The foggy sound and constantly refocusing camera made the only scenes that broke away from the wacky picnic setting, inadequate. This mediocre multimedia let down what was otherwise a comforting collection of honest monologues and interactions. While these cutaways presented far more creditable, vulnerable and realistic performances from each of the four actors, they were long and lacked the director’s control and pace that was otherwise present in the live performance.

Despite a few execution blunders, I entered the intermission thankful for The Picnic’s production in Brisbane, and hopeful that the substantial strength in writing, character and direction would continue into the second piece.

Saying Goodbye To Ally

Although Saying Goodbye to Ally was significantly different to The Picnic in theme, content and character, the caliber of work was not equal. To put it bluntly, the work took delicate issues such as suicide and domestic violence and forced them as jokes in an attempt at a confronting black comedy. The work was definitely confronting, however the jokes were entirely insensitive and inexcusable.

The work has an interesting premise: Alcestis, a character conceived by Euripides, appropriated for a contemporary Australian environment. While playwright and Director Kristen Maloney managed to present a reasonably interesting sounding story of a female lead at various stages of her life, the approach was insulting and inconsiderate.

I confess black comedies are rarely my cup of tea, however the show’s beginnings with Alison (Gemma Elsom) literally dancing with Death (Tremayne Gordon) at her own suicide party, was admittedly intriguing. The initial banter between the young woman and Death is clever, the situation ironic, and the conversation respectful enough to be considered advantageous, but not yet outrageous. Gordon provided a perfect depth to this abstract character, despite his role being cut to essentially the single opening scene. Another section that held equal amounts of promise was the depiction of naive 10 year old Alice (Meghan Bowden) and her heart wrenching life with an abused mother, absent father, and humble hobbies.

Unfortunately these brief moments of considerate construction were framed around an overall humour that left the work unsalvageable. The most unsettling of this framing included puppetry with cheezels (reinforcing Ally’s abusive father), repeated jokes and graphic images about attempted suicide, and a concluding monologue that not only dragged, but also insulted countless women. I understand these moments may have been intentionally confronting, however the overall approach to these topics was counterproductive considering we live in a society that already diminishes the true victims of these issues.

To make light of abuse, make fun of suicidal thoughts and make up underdeveloped stories around these issues proved that this production was definitely only going to be an entertaining experience for some. The deliberate direction of the first piece unravelled almost entirely in this production. Despite a continuation of Bowden and Goldfeder’s powerful performances with their totally different characters, the work was left disjointed and disturbing.

The piece claims to ask difficult questions, however I feel that it needs to ask what it is, exactly, that it is trying to say. Without the jokes that categorise the piece as one of the deepest and darkest shades of the black comedy, the work told a story of a woman struggling with her relationships, particularly those with men. Evidently a “daddy issues” theme was illustrated but not explored enough. Deaths and disappearances of important secondary characters weren’t explained and the purpose of scenes that used dance, audience interaction and an uncomfortably empty stage, weren’t illustrated effectively. If the work had kept with its promising absurdist beginnings, it may have kept afloat. Unfortunately it didn’t, and this show became a let down to a night that could have been consistently impactful and enjoyable.

Written by Rhumer Diball.

This review is based on the reviewer’s experience of the opening night performance on Thursday May 12th.

To book tickets to Backyard Double Bill click here.