Theatre review: Underneath Ms Archer, St Martins Theatre

This is that rare kind of play: sparky, fast-paced and funny.

Written and performed by Melbourne theatre veterans Louise Siversan and Peter Houghton, and directed by Peter Houghton, Underneath Ms Archer, a one-act two-handed comedy/drama currently in its premiere season at St Martins Theatre in South Yarra, explores the phenomenon of social media shaming in the context of the Western history of the legal enshrinement of personal freedom from unjust imprisonment.

In short: it’s Twitter versus the Magna Carta.

An Australian woman, Kellie Archer, arrives at her mother’s flat in London. Her mother has recently died, and Kellie has come straight from her job working as a head flight attendant for her airline, still in teal suit and hat, in a frenzy and on a mission to book another flight straight home to Perth – not on her airline. 

Footage of Kellie in an altercation with a passenger has gone viral, and in the time it has taken for her to get from the airport to her mother’s flat, her life has turned upside down. Constant beeping on her phone indicates another tag from another keyboard warrior, and eventually her workplace publicly weighs in via social media – ‘we don’t condone violence of any kind’ – sounding the death knell for her career.

Among her swiftly combusting personal life, a 13th century knight spontaneously appears.

As a plot device, it’s certainly dramatic, and all of the very impressive stagecraft elements of the play are employed to spectacular effect to heighten it further: moody stage lighting and stage smoke, the music dark and foreboding.

Houghton as the knight is fully decked out in very authentic-looking, filthy chainmail and a tunic bearing a mostly obscured lion rampant.

For the first part of the play, he speaks what seems to be Middle English: sounding like a mix of German and Danish, with some Nordic sounds in there as well. My theatre companion, a literature academic, tells me this was actual Middle English. To my ear, it was really impressive and the commitment to this moment of a major cultural clash couldn’t have been done better.

After a section of the play where the knight and Kellie can’t make heads or tails of what the other is saying, she throws him into her bathroom, instructing him to shower to wash the stink off him. He emerges, clean and now able to speak (thankfully, for the progression of the play) an understandable version of English. 

The swiftly learned showering process and magical linguistic shift to modern English is one of a few moments in Underneath Ms Archer where the audience is asked to afford some theatrical licence to get the story moving. The first that felt like a bit of a clanger to me was when Kellie falls asleep in the flat. The knight – whose name we learn is William – is still awake, and she hasn’t worked out who he is (she assumes he’s the former lover of her dead mother), but she curls up on the couch and nods off.

I would have imagined it would require a rather big gear shift (from her recently experienced abject fear of a presumed home invading lunatic and some seriously spooky couch-portal-to-an-underground-tunnel palaver) to get her heart rate low enough to sleep. But OK.

The second came later in the play when William does a backflip on his story, now pretending he actually is from Kellie’s era, just as Kellie is coming to realise the truth of who he is. This one I really couldn’t work out. Why? What is his motivation for this? It felt like such a shift in character that I wanted a clearer reason for it.

These are just a few niggles, and I think they felt spotlit for me, because the acting is so believable and physically embodied, such that you can follow every nuance of their characters’ motivations all the way through their performances. 

Houghton as William – who turns out to be a significant historical figure – is riveting to watch. His whole physicality, the way he reacts to discovering hot chocolate and Tim Tams with such visceral gusto, his joyous relaying of his experience out on the town when he leaves the flat and winds up at a dance party – his incredible grasp of this ancient language and the accent that feels so authentic… I was completely convinced by him: it’s an incredible performance, and very funny.

Siversan is such a wonderful comic actor and shines as Kellie – her practical, no-nonsense air, supreme self-confidence in her job as head flight attendant, and the visible fall from grace we witness as her whole life collapses around her. It’s brilliantly done.

The sound design is spectacular and a highlight of Underneath Ms Archer – cinematic, layered and evocative. The composition by J David Franzke adds both context (the overlaid voiceover of social media voices of outrage that begins the play, setting up Kellie’s predicament) and a mood-setting soundscape, employing naturalistic touches and adding heightened drama to key moments: the party that William attends, complete with the through-the-floor thump of techno dance beats and muffled partygoer voices; and the low sounds of external daytime London traffic and passer-by goings-on.

The set and all elements of the design are likewise excellent. The fully constructed set fills the black box of the Irene Mitchell Studio at St Martin’s Theatre – the shallow stage pushing the action forward. The action of the play occurs within the living room section of the flat, with a set of stairs at the back leading out to a shared corridor. 

A large painting of a tempest-tossed ship on the landing is a feature that doubles as a screen, allowing some beautifully-lit transition moments between scenes, and an enormous, muslin curtained window to the right of stage similarly allows for some gorgeous and varied lighting states.

As a play that deals with ideas of public shaming, or ‘cancel culture’, Underneath Ms Archer is relatively heavy-handed in its moral lesson: that we all have the right to a fair trial and social media pile-ons are essentially the modern witch hunt. 

Bringing together the two protagonists, separated by eight centuries, is a dramatic device to hammer home the idea that, for all our differences, our society is founded on ideas of individual liberties, where we should be free of the fear of being thrown into prison or publicly vilified without due process. And in Western culture, it is true that the complexities inherent in these issues are at the forefront of a lot of public cultural discourse.

Read: Book review: The Crying Room, Gretchen Shirm

In terms of adding to this discourse, I don’t think Underneath Ms Archer is ultimately successful – for, as always, the devil is in the detail. But its filmic production values have enough substance to convert the theatre agnostic and, as a comedy with bite, led by two astonishingly talented comic actors (who also wrote the play), it certainly is top-notch entertainment, full of sparky writing, and well worth catching.

Underneath Ms Archer
St Martins Theatre
Writers: Louise Siversan and Peter Houghton
Director: Peter Houghton
Associate Director: Anne Browning
Lighting Design: Bronwyn Pringle
Sound Design and Composition: J David Franzke
Costume Design: Karine Larché
Set Design: Sophie Woodward and Jacob Battista 
Dramaturgy: Chris Mead
Stage Manager: Natasha Marich
Cast: Louise Siversan and Peter Houghton

Underneath Ms Archer will be performed until 16 July 2023.

Kate Mulqueen is an actor, writer, musician and theatre-maker based in Naarm (Melbourne). Instagram: @picklingspirits Facebook: @katemulq Twitter: @katemulqueen