Aridhi Anderson is a theatremaker, performer and reviewer based in Melbourne. Check out her work at aridhianderson.com.
A loaded comedy that hits the spot
Martin McDonagh's play The Lonesome West (by Lab Theatre in association with Aleksandar Vass & Vass Productions) is a dark comedy with something for everyone.
Actors Dean Gunera and Sean Kitcher rehearsing with director Peter Kalos at the Alex Theatre. Photo credit: Jack Zapsalis. Image provided by Lab Theatre.
A pair of dysfunctional brothers, a despairing priest and a sweet schoolgirl turn an ordinary Irish living room into a museum of humanness. The brothers have just lost their father and are struggling to grieve in a healthy way - fighting instead over whatever will lend itself as a trigger. The priest, struggling in his mission to have them reconcile, is growing despondent at what he perceives as his many failures in his role. The schoolgirl presents a contrast of sweetness and hope but is ultimately no match for what the situation demands.
Brilliantly written and admirably executed, the play takes an exceedingly dark situation and laces it with bold, provocative, razor-sharp wit that has the audience in splits from beginning to end. The play addresses every imaginable sort of darkness and conflict - ranging from petty childhood fights to conflicts of faith, from broken relationships to suicide and murder - and offers humour to help the audience cope even when the characters clearly aren't coping. The play is an eye opener about the power of comedy to make darkness bearable.
Official Alex Theatre show banner featuring Dean Gunera as Coleman. Image provided by Lab Theatre.
The play opens in an Irish home where everything - including furniture and kitchen appliances and even the front door - are marked with a giant V. The house and everything in it belongs to Valene, and he will have his brother Coleman respect that fact. Coleman is unaffected by Valene's claims of ownership and lives an entitled life in Valene's house. As the story progresses, the disturbing codependency in their relationship comes to light. Valene, emotionally scarred from childhood trauma, is deeply possessive of his figurines of the saints, his stove, his alcohol, his crisps, and his brother Coleman. His stubborn attachment and unwillingness to let go provides ongoing cover (as well as fuel) for Coleman's chilling transgressions.
Father Welsh - the conflicted priest whose name no one seems to properly remember or respect - is the gut-wrenching epitome of a well-intentioned but ineffective shepherd who makes a greater impact on his sheep by his absence than by his presence. He features prominently in the first half of the play and has very little stage time in the second half, but with some help from the schoolgirl Girleen his presence hovers on powerfully all the way to the end.
Official Alex Theatre show banner featuring Matthew Elliot as Father Welsh. Image provided by Lab Theatre.
The actors pull off convincing Irish accents which might take the audience a little while to adjust to at the start, but it ultimately works well to transport them to the context of the play. Compelling characterisation and persuasive interplay between the actors makes the performance believable and relatable, despite obvious exaggeration and at times even absurdity. The play is steadily paced, with scenes regularly switching between conversation, darkness, humour, action/fights, softness, and reminiscing over powerful memories which both injure and heal.
The first hour of the play solidly establishes the context and backstory and sets the audience's expectations, but the second half is truly where it takes off and exceeds them. The audience experience, especially in the second half, is a rollercoaster ride of emotions and is full of surprises. For those who are simply looking for an evening of laughs and entertainment, there's plenty of it in there. For those looking for more, there is also an astonishing amount of depth - there's a lot to take home with you after the show.
Alex Theatre St Kilda. Image from the Alex Theatre website.