Review | ‘The Sum of Us’ is one of the great Aussie plays

The Sum of Us | Subiaco Arts Centre | Until 7th March | ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ 

Yirra Yaakin’s production of The Sum of Us is the first production to be programmed by the company’s new Artistic Director Eva Grace Mullaley, who took over the reins from longstanding leader Kyle Morrison last year. It’s a choice that allows Mullaley to put her personality, identity and values front and centre.

The Sum of Us is a story that places the action between a clash of old and young, fathers and sons, love and loss, and gay and straight. Widower Harry lives in inner city Melbourne with is son Jeff, who is in early twenties. Jeff is your typical Aussie lad, he’s a plumber, loves a beer at the pub, plays in the local footy team – and is an out and proud gay man.

Harry has no problems with his son’s sexuality, he’s been out on the pub crawls around Melbourne’s queer bars, and doesn’t blink an eyelid if Jeff brings someone home, he’s ready to make an extra couple tea and serve of breakfast in the morning. The pair have a relationship that is reminiscent of an old married couple, they know each other to a tee, and while they might wind each other up, each cares about the other deeply.

There are about to be some changes in both men’s lives as they search for love, Jeff’s got his eye on a young man down the pub, and Harry’s taken the plunge and signed up to a dating service. The pathway they’re about to traverse however has some unexpected destinations.

When playwright David Stevens first wrote this distinctly Australian play he couldn’t get it staged in Australia. It’s debut was off-Broadway production in 1990. Actor Tony Goldwyn, who would go on to find fame in the TV Scandal, was the first actor to play the character of Jeff.  Two years later it was staged by the Sydney Theatre Company, and it gained widespread exposure when it was adapted into a successful film in 1994 with Russell Crowe and Jack Thompson in the lead roles.

When it first premiered in the 1990’s the crux of this story was an accepting parent of an gay child, it was to some extent an abnormality, certainly in the depictions of LGBTIQ people on screen. Thirty years later that scenario has moved from the extraordinary to the very common, and to some extent it moves the work into one of historical documentation rather than cutting edge social commentary. Throughout the play there are several turns of phrase that will potentially jar with audiences.

What is a fresh and new for this production is the casting of an Indigenous cast, and ahead of watching the performance I wondered if there was more currency to this story when you present it in this context, but the discussion ahead of the opening night performance vanquished those ponderances.

The opening night featured a Welcome to Country from respected community member Jim Morrison, who humorously defined his elder status as being the eldest queer.

Morrison spoke about what it was like for him thirty years ago, coming out to a group of Noongar men as a queer and Indigenous man. Describing the process as slightly traumatic, Morrison shared that ultimately people were supportive of his identity and there was a lot of love and respect for his identity. As a founder of the group Queers for Reconciliation, there was a lot of shared experiences between the queer community and the Indigenous community.

What I had forgotten about this work is how hilariously funny it is, the laughs came often, and while it is a longer than average play, it remains engaging throughout.  The story is one about love, connection and the importance of living in the moment.

The cast are all sensational in their roles. Matthew Cooper plays Jeff, bringing a lot of depth to the character. Bruce Denny is charming as dad Harry, delivering a series of monologues to the audience that brought to life a world much bigger than the four walls of the home displayed on the stage.

Janine Oxenham carefully balances the conservatism and forthrightness of Harry’s love interest Joyce. Joshua Pether is delightful as Jeff’s admirer Greg, his performance has a distinct physicality and his flirting smiles and looks resonate throughout the theatre. It was surprising to discover that for both Pether and Oxenham this their acting debut, both having come from a dance and movement background.

The show is set largely in the inner city home of Harry and Jeff, but stage designer Bryan Woltjen has created a large dance floor that occupies the majority of the space and the scene changes and interludes include some waltzes, tangos and jives that increase the theatricality of the piece.

In staging this play Yirra Yaakin highlight how this story is open to subtle interpretations that reflect the vast cultural experiences of Australians, and promote David Stevens best known work as a something that should be recognised as a significant work in the canon of Australian theatre. It’s a play that deserves to be seen and staged over and over again.

Get tickets to The Sum of Us from Perth Festival.

Graeme Watson

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