Written by Melbourne-based playwright and actor Ash Flanders and directed by Malthouse Theatre’s Artistic Director Matthew Lutton, This is Living is an acerbic comedy set within the confines of a large rented holiday home in Victoria’s wellness capital, Hepburn Springs, over New Year’s Eve.
A group of friends are there on vacation, three 50-something women, their younger gay friend, Hugh, and his aspiring actor boyfriend, Will. The getaway has been organised by Hugh, who arrives first with Will. As they unpack, it’s clear that Hugh has been – and may be still – seriously sick, and there is an undercurrent of tension that runs through their interactions. Will tries to make Hugh comfortable, Hugh snips at him – demanding Evian water only for his tea and crying, ‘No I don’t want a foot massage; why are you putting the groceries there?’
Alex and Jo arrive. Jo is a workaholic theatre and performance academic, who is distracted as she deals with a talented but flaky student who hasn’t submitted their end-of-year assessments. Alex is a well-coiffed TV personality, the long-time host of a travel show This is Living, contemplating a career change: a new show and a new network.
Charlene is the final addition to the group. She’s a well-off divorcee who hasn’t worked since she married rich. She has a Jekyll and Hyde reputation, but who will show up this weekend: Charlene or Charli, the wild-living, devil-may-care party-going version of herself?
In directing This is Living, Lutton has assembled an excellent cast, all of whom eke out the most from Flanders’ delightfully lively language, embodying the complex layers of friendship and relationship history. Their ease with each other, the love, the tickling annoyances, the entrenched roles each play, the well-worn digs they throw, the secrets they withhold from each other and the tension that boils under the surface, until the final act: it’s tip-top ensemble theatre.
The most challenging role of This is Living is Will played by Wil King. It requires him to paint a detailed portrait of a relationship under strain – a tough ask among the nothing-short-of-brilliant performances by the three women. Belinda McClory is sensational as the tough yet refined Alex, Maria Theodorakis a delight as the frazzled but brilliant Jo, and Michelle Perera’s physicality as the hungover, blunt and bananas Charlene its own brand of hilarious.
The script includes a lot of cross-talking, which mostly worked on opening night, except for a few minor drops, which I’m sure will be ironed out during the run. The cross-talking serves to elevate the energy and pace of the group get-together, and the directorial choices (with mic’d up performers, and a large set presenting a detailed interior of the rented house) all facilitate a highly naturalistic performance style, while the visible overhead lighting and painted backdrop evoke the artifice of studio sitcom television.
Set and costume designer Matilda Woodroofe has created a set that evokes a luxe lakeside retreat – large, open plan living with timber panelling, sliding doors to a large backdrop view, big bedroom to the right of set visible through a cut-out wall. The central living area is dressed with Airbnb-appropriate minimalist furniture.
The audience seating bank is arranged as an amphitheatre – the timber-hued flooring reaching under the feet of the front row of the audience. This – along with the amplification of the actors’ voices – allows for a great range of movement of each character, as they lie on couches, unpack items in the kitchen, sit at the dining table or chat off-stage, on the outdoor patio or with their back to some of the audience. The reach-out-and-you-could-touch-them closeness of the performers feels right for such an intimate play, and the moments of downstage action – particularly in the second act – make for powerful use of the space.
As a microcosm of the complexities of long-term friendships, Flanders’ choice to set his play in the context of a group vacation over New Year’s offers a satisfying theatrical structure. Each character comes with their own baggage and is at a crossroads. We see the behavioural shifts that betray the nuances of each relationship within the group – as Hugh accepts the foot massage from Alex, but rejects it from a deflated Will. Alex, meanwhile, prickles at Charlene’s barbs about what work she’s had done to maintain her TV looks, and confronts Will – the outsider in the group – about why he’s being such a Debbie Downer, responding to her need to protect Hugh from someone who may not love him the way she, his dear and long-time loyal friend, believes he should.
The second act builds the pressure-cooker tension, leading to a dramatic confrontation and breakdown. During this time, as the set allows us to see into the bedroom, we watch the protracted devastation of one of the characters, grappling with a new reality. I loved the idea of this, opening out the moment of interiority to the audience, but found it didn’t add a huge amount in practice – the action in the main part of the stage, the living room/kitchen, drawing focus.
As the primary source of dramatic tension within This is Living, the depiction of the relationship between Will and Hugh is hampered by the short timespan of the action of the play. With the New Year’s Eve setting, and seeing Hugh being awful to Will from the start, we have no background for their relationship – seeing them in love and caring for each other. This makes it a tough ask for an audience to have skin in the game as we see their relationship break down, and it’s harder for the final resolution to have the impact it could.
Despite this structural challenge, This is Living is character-driven ensemble theatre from one of our great comedic writers. Directed with a deft hand, the script and each jewel of a character is allowed to shine. It is exciting to see a play that foregrounds women’s relationships, particularly post-menopausal women, as well as the friendships that emerge between gay men and women. Charlene asks Hugh at one stage: ‘What do you get out of this? Why do you as a young gay man hang out with a bunch of older women? What’s in it for you?’
It’s clear that there’s a lot in it for Hugh, as there is for all the characters, and as there is for all of us who are lucky enough to have long-time friends who are our chosen family. And, like all family, there are quibbles and frustrations and sometimes even big blow-outs. But history stands for something and, when the chips are down, these are the people who will stand by you, for better or worse.
This is Living by Ash Flanders
Director: Matthew Lutton
Set and Costume Designer: Matilda Woodroofe
Lighting Designer: Paul Jackson
Composer and Sound Designer: Joe Paradise Lui
Associate Sound System Designer: Gideon Cozens
Cast: Wil King, Belinda McClory, Markus Mckenzie, Michelle Perera, Maria Theodorakis