Sunday, August 6, 2017

Theatre: Coma Land (★★★★)

Black Swan State Theatre Company and Performing Lines WA
Written and directed by Will O’Mahony
Set designer Patrick James Howe
Sound designer Rachael Dease
Lighting designer Chris Donnelly
Performed by Humphrey Bower, Kirsty Marillier, Amy Mathews, Morgan Owen and Ben Sutton

In Will O’Mahony’s carefully delineated and finely performed drama, coma is a place.
By logical necessity, it can only be “about” one character – a startling young girl named Boon (Kirsty Marillier) – but O’Mahony’s achievement in Coma Land is to people the strange place she is in with figments of her imagination that have their own stories, memories and ambitions.
There’s a chirpy girl of Boon’s age, Penguin (Morgan Owen), who is trying to fly according to Malcolm Gladwell’s tendentious 10,000 Hour Rule (practice something for 10,000 hours and you will become expert in it). There’s Penguin’s dad (Humphrey Bower) who might be working towards their escape but keeps a dark secret. There’s the chummy party planner Jinny (Amy Mathews) and a panda named Cola (Ben Sutton) who pretends to be a man.
This place, and these people, are treacherous dramatic territory, but O’Mahony (who also directs) has shown that he’s up to the challenge before, most notably in his 2013 indie hit Great White and in last year’s The Mars Project.
His great talent is controlled incongruity, and much of the humour – and there is plenty in Coma Land – springs from it. There’s no earthly reason why Cola would suddenly ask what our favourite font is (his, he says, is the obnoxious Comic Sans), but, then, there’s no reason why a panda would be in Boon’s coma. And so on.
Coma Land isn’t about all this, or coma, at all. It’s about success and failure, dependence and independence, families and their fault lines, and these themes weave around, and progress through, the metaphor of coma to a powerful conclusion.
For this to be an entertainment, though, or to work on any of its levels, you mast have performance of high quality, energy and control, and all five actors rise to the challenge.
Humphrey Bower is a master of the unlovely, and he conveys a kind of careworn peril that gives the play a taut thread throughout, while Mathews and Sutton expertly deliver much of its absurdity and comedy.
Owen is chirrupy and magnetic as Penguin (you’re allowed to be reminded of Jane Horrocks’s Bubble in Absolutely Fabulous, but smarter), and Marillier makes the play her own in a wise and feisty leading performance that leaves plenty of room for those around her to shine.
The show looks and sounds great; Patrick James Howe’s set of dark distances around a square riser of brown shag pile gives it both mystery and focus, as does Chris Donnelly’s exposed, meticulous lighting design. The remarkable Rachael Dease brings music of great simplicity and beauty to the play.
Coma Land is another milestone in O’Mahony’s steadily developing career, and another success in Black Swan’s impressive 2017 season.

This review appeared in The West Australian 25.7.17 


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