MTC's The Distance is an enjoyably unpredictable comedy-drama.By Peter Craven.
MTC’s ‘The Distance’
Every so often you see a play that entertains you, that succeeds in being moving and funny, is expertly acted, and which provides the kinds of satisfaction that are at least equal to upper-level television, which, let’s face it, most theatre, alas, isn’t. The Distance, by British director turned playwright Deborah Bruce, is in this category, and it’s done with great competence and some splendour by the Melbourne Theatre Company, led by Nadine Garner. It is marvellously supple and moody, funny and ridiculous and real at the same time.
The play had been billed as a kind of updated Doll’s House, which it certainly is not. The only thing The Distance has in common with Ibsen’s world-shattering piece of domestic feminism is that it’s about a woman who decides to leave not only her husband but her children. That bit of shock tactics aside – and, admittedly, it’s the donnée of the play, the datum it circles around – The Distance is in fact a social comedy with plenty of heartwarming elements and plenty of laughs, which is not flawless in its execution but has you reeling at the unpredictability with which it juxtaposes a thousand familiar things into a pattern that both appals and delights.
A woman who has been living, apparently happily married, in far-off Melbourne, comes hurtling back to London. The fiercest and feistiest of her girlfriends swears with atavistic intensity that she’s booking two tickets to Australia so she can do battle and get back from the clutches of a self-interested father the two boys the escapee wife has left behind.
She has the support of a slightly less fervent, rather more ditzy female mate, but the real problem is that the runaway has no desire to keep the kids: she thinks they’ll be better off with their rich devoted dad.
Meanwhile, there are the dramas of the evening. There are riots and mayhem in London and the ditzy girlfriend wants her teenage son rescued from the risk of this while the returning wife wants to lose herself in the anonymity of some club around Brighton.
The get-back-the-kids woman has a Welsh rock musician husband willing to drive to get the teenage boy and he has a ne’er-do-well brother, who’s been to jail, who has a lot of emotional intelligence and a sympathy for the complexities of what’s what and what isn’t.
The teenage boy is brought to the house of the get-the-kids woman and the musician, and there are also appearances from the Good Husband in Oz as well as a heart-wrenching attempt at a phone call from the abandoned little boys.
The Distance is an attempt at a “commercial” play, in the sense that it is a comedy-drama of potentially great appeal. The production by Leticia Cáceres – whose work I have never admired before – is admirable, clear and elegant and there are very satisfying performances all round.
Susan Prior has the most difficult task, which is to appear convincing as the wife with the “unnatural” impulses, and she gives a solid performance that is at the same time not so transfixingly real as to eliminate the problem with the character. The problem is that we never quite plumb the mystery of her desertion: it is asserted rather than fully probed and it’s possible to imagine another actress bridging the gap by force of arms or with a wholly convincing simulacrum of trauma and shock. Prior doesn’t do this, and there’s a case for not doing this, for letting the enigma look like a walking enigma, human and affectless at once.
Nadine Garner, in the role of the woman who has an uncompromising attitude to the kids, is extraordinary. She rages, she snorts, she charms and she sizzles and she snakes: it is a performance full of the spectrum of spectacular self-dramatising gestures yet it is never for a moment hammy. Garner runs around the stage looking utterly slender and lithe in a short silky black skirt but she is an avenging deity of devotion to her womanly loyalties as well as a completely convincing carnival of moods and vanities and disillusions.
We have seen Garner in the last stretch in The Weir and in Private Lives and she has been superb in both. She is one of those actors you could use as the foundation stone of a fully fledged – not just a stagione – repertory company. She could play Martha, she could play Clytemnestra, she could play Mrs Alving or Olive, or any of the female roles from Stephen Sewell or Hannie Rayson. She is a natural comedian because she has an utterly rapid comprehension of the broad lines of characterisation that allows her to keep in play the longer paragraphs of any dramatist’s musicality.
Katrina Milosevic rises to meet her as the woman with the boy who is vague on directions and mobile phones, and likes a spliff. It’s a superb piece of clowning and she gets a sense of the pain and bewilderment behind the jokes at the same time.
It’s also gratifying that – for once – the blokes deliver as well. Ben Prendergast is a model of considerate understatement as Garner’s husband, and in his small part Martin Blum is fine as the guy in Melbourne. Joe Klocek is much better than most people are at playing adolescents, full of dawning masculinity and passion and outraged decency.
And in the role of the sensitive no-hoper who keeps his head, Nathan Page – the detective from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries – is that rarest of all things on our stages these days: a natural leading man. He gleams, he relaxes, he moves with absolute precision. When he tousles the boy’s hair you feel the presence of that absolutely inimitable thing – human warmth.
It’s a jewel of a performance in a remarkably shipshape company that shows the theatre to be not an archangel of naturalism by any means but a comfort and a hilarity in the face of subject matter that has the strongest possible risk of thin ice.
There has to be something encouraging about Cáceres’s production, too, whether the director has suddenly found a key to this kind of play or her cast has simply triumphed.
The Distance is certainly an encouragement to people who want to see what the theatre can do. It comes at the same time as the technical brilliance of Matthew Warchus’s production of Tim Minchin’s Matilda, which looks like the surest winner in Melbourne, with tots performing like angels, and with Neil Armfield’s The Secret River finishing its east-coast run. The latter has met with almost universal acclaim, but it’s a Parnassian piece for all the worthiness of its theme: the work of a great director but not in itself a great production, despite the haunting grandeur of the final lament.
VISUAL ART Whistler's Mother
NGV International, Melbourne, until June 19
BALLET Swan Lake
Sydney Opera House, April 1-20
COMEDY Melbourne International Comedy Festival
Various venues, Melbourne, until April 17
THEATRE King Charles III
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, March 31-April 30
MUSIC The Godfather Live in Concert
Hamer Hall, Melbourne, March 31-April 1
National Museum of Australia, Canberra, until March 28
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 26, 2016 as "Stall in the family". Subscribe here.