who don't know history, according to the Irish statesman Edmund Burke, are
destined to repeat it, while the Bible insists more than once that the sins of
the father will be passed on to his sons. Both seem apt expressions when
considering Australian writer Andrew Bovell's inter-generational
Intrigued by seven postcards sent by Henry from Australia (which had been intercepted and hidden for years by his mother), Gabriel is now intent on following his father’s route in the hope of learning more about him—a quest that will have genuinely “life-changing” consequences.
Bovell’s story is simple enough, but the manner of its revelation certainly is not; he shifts the action forwards and backwards through time, building up an intricate cats cradle of repeated ideas and expressions, ceaseless rain and a generational reliance on fish soup. Ingenious, perhaps; ambitious, certainly; demanding an attentive audience, undoubtedly—well, there’s nothing wrong in assuming your audience is able to think.
Nevertheless, clarity is required, especially when the production can be charitably described as low-budget, in a small studio space with a minimum of staging. Here, we have a large table surrounded by seven disparate chairs, and a row of hooks on the wall for numerous white umbrellas which, when opened, reveal the time and location of a particular scene. It’s a straightforward “info dump”, but it does become annoyingly distracting as the action proceeds.
The pivotal scenes take place in London in 1988, when 28-year-old Gabriel Law attempts one final communication with his emotionally-remote, alcoholic mother. Gabriel’s father Henry mysteriously vanished when Gabriel was just seven years old. Intrigued by seven postcards sent by Henry from Australia (which had been intercepted and hidden for years by his mother), Gabriel is now intent on following his father’s route in the hope of learning more about him—a quest that will have genuinely “life-changing” consequences.
It’s not an easy tale to take in. Time and again, fathers disappear; mothers retreat emotionally; and there’s an unending sense of loss and loneliness, even though characters are seldom alone on the stage. Indeed, on occasions, characters from different points in their lives are on the stage at the same time, as if remembering the past or sensing what a predestined future is telling them. It’s a theatrical flourish, although there’s always a sense that all this would work better as a film. (Bovell has written quite a few of those, ranging from Strictly Ballroom to the Mel Gibson-starring Edge of Darkness.)
The pacing, particularly at the start, is slow, but the cast are compelling and, while the reveal about Henry Law is somewhat predictable, it still carries an emotional punch thanks to the cast’s emotional commitment. And, contrary to the entrapping repetition of earlier scenes, the finale–when Henry Law’s grandson meets his own long-abandoned son—there is suddenly a sense of hope as behaviour patterns are broken and the title of the play at last makes some sense.