One of my mantras has been when working in the theatre: “The writer is God.” I have always held the writer in the highest esteem, especially the playwright, and in my working as an actor, director or teacher of acting, I have always applied a kind of ‘forensic fanaticism’ to the writer’s words and clues, including the syntax and even the lay out on the printed page, to decipher the possibilities that the writer has given to the performing artists in their attempting to embody his/her ideas. The black marks on the white page, if the writer is good, has given you everything you need to create character and tell the story. It is a musical score that benefits from a ‘close’ reading. It is why when working with actors I always encourage them to work with the BEST writers for they have done most of the work for one – one just needs the tools, the creative habit and patience to extract it.
How difficult is it to write? How difficult is it to write a play? Very difficult, I have come to understand. On watching this new Australian play, 80 Minutes No Interval, by Travis Cotton, I couldn’t help these ideas entering my head. And even more precisely, I was asking myself: “How difficult is it to write a comedy?” Given the failure rate of that genre, that one endures in the theatre (and especially on Australian Television), I would say enormously difficult.
Mr Cotton’s new play is simply a wonder. The plotting is surprising, the jokes are rapid fire (and often very smart), the characters are hilarious and the twist to his tale extraordinarily beautiful. But Mr Cotton has also directed it and employed a variety of comic techniques that cross over into many genres and reaps laughter for not only the aptness of the styles in use but also because of the audacity and detailed discipline of their execution with his hardworking actors (Movement by Scott Witt). Given that the last play I saw of Mr Cotton’s was Robots vs Art, which he also directed, and remembering how tight I thought that was, while not much liking the playwriting itself, 80 Minutes No Interval, is quite a considerable leap forward.
Louis (Ryan Johnson) is a failed writer who makes a living as a theatre critic. His life, we discover, has a curse upon it and he is doomed to not do well. His newspaper editor has found a Red Box that runs on an algorithm to write perfect reviews and so sacks him. His girlfriend, Claire (Sheridan Harbridge) is tired of his ineptness and his hesitation of living a normal life as husband and father with a normal job. Her comic rant on the theatre that she has endured with him is a masterpiece of comic satire, delivered by Ms Harbridge with a ‘killer’ comic skill. His parents, played with a withering comic eye by Mr Goldsworthy and Ms Harbridge, want their investment property back and need him to pay his back-rent, and to vacate, forthwith. He finds an editor at last, Dan Kurtz (Mr Goldsworthy), interested in publishing his latest novella, but only after changes, and that is when fate really turns to ‘shit’. But despite the horrors of a twenty year jail term for a crime he did not commit he still has kept writing. Only hours after leaving jail, carrying his hand written plays, he takes a romantic u-turn into a flower shop, and then … !
Ms Harbridge, Mr Goldsworthy play a number of persona with true comic aplomb. Jacob Allen is wryly amusing as a professional waiter, and Julia Rorke gives a performance as Mathilde, the flower shop girl, that is either wonderfully crafted naivety or horribly inexperienced performing – I couldn’t divine which it was, and one couldn’t help but think of some of the actresses Charlie Chaplin used for his heroines, to great effect: e.g. Virginia Cherrill in City Lights (1931), and she too works in a florist shop. Whichever it is, it is a fascinating stroke of genius from Mr Cotton in the casting of this young woman, for it works in the most tender way. Mr Cotton’s hero, Louis, the straight adventurer of this tale, is sustained with a gifted generosity of the dead-pan by Ryan Johnson – a quiet and attractive performance.
Georgia Hopkins is the production designer and pulls a wonderful surprise in the latter part of the play after presenting a fairly austere and pragmatic look to the early sequences of the play. Here she is aided and abetted by Ross Graham with his early strict lighting palette that blooms into astonishing beauty with Ms Hopkins’ coup de theatre. Hamish Michael has Composed (with Hue Blanes) and created a sound design of tremendous intricacy and wit, such that it becomes as important a comic element as the actors’ contribution – sections of the play are sustained with just the wizardry of the sound. A tremendous feat.
Mr Cotton has written and directed a very marvellous work, a surprisingly original black-comic whimsy that dazzles as much as it delights. I thoroughly recommend attendance. Of course, comedy is the hardest theatre form because it will always be a matter of taste (and mood) – I loved it and hope that you might too. Certainly, here is a playwright that has been persisting for yonks around the fringes of our theatre world and I believe with this work deserves a break out into the Big Time. Belvoir and Sydney Theatre Company take a look. Please.
Mr Cotton in his director’s notes says in the concluding paragraph:
“Most importantly, thanks to my family in Melbourne for supporting me to come up here and put on this show. It means the world to me.”
I should assure his family that 80 Minutes No Interval, gives me confidence in the determination and fidelity of this writer, and their support, considering the pleasure I had, means, if I may say so, the world to me, too. So, thanks for your faith and trust in Travis Cotton. Go see, immediately.
Company: Thread Entertainment and Red Line Productions
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St, Wooloomooloo, Sydney
Dates: 11 March – 9 April 2016
For more of Kevin Jackson’s theatre reviews, check out his blog at Kevin Jackson’s Theatre Diary
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television