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Sweet Phoebe (Red Stitch) – theatre review

Red Stitch’s 25th anniversary production of Michael Gow’s Sweet Phoebe turns the tables on the platitude that “a dog is a man’s best friend”.

Helen (Olivia Monticciolo) and Frazer (Marcus McKenzie) are an uptight couple – both personally and professionally – who look to be going places. She’s a home designer, involved in her first project since going out on her own, while his boss has earmarked him for a major account, if they can get it over the line. In the past they’ve received counselling to ensure they’re respectful of one another and are rowing in the same direction, so to speak. Each day, after work they greet each other with great enthusiasm, ready to listen to their partner’s trials and tribulations, positive reinforcement at the tip of their tongues. Yes, it appears more than a little forced, but it seems to be working for them.

Photo: Teresa Noble

Suddenly their joie de vivre overflows after they agree to mind another couple’s dog – named Phoebe – for a week. The pooch immediately ingratiates herself into their lives. Helen, and particularly Frazer, are smitten. Then after three days the dog escapes and all hell breaks loose as they begin searching for her. They try everything – retracing their steps, radio appeals, advertising, visiting pounds and animal shelters – but to no avail. The quest takes over and totally consumes their lives, with both going into great detail about their efforts.

And then the cruelest twist of fate – but not at all how you would have imagined it.

This is fine melodramatic theatre if ever I saw it … even if the incessant story-telling tends to overwhelm after a time. Sweet Phoebe is pacey and nuanced. Some scenes last mere seconds, but all the while they’re building a rich tapestry of the turmoil in Helen and Frazer’s lives.

While Monticciolo and McKenzie are both good at bringing the material to life, Monticciolo is able to extract moments of comic and dramatic genius from Gow’s cleverly conceived words. It gets to the point where she literally sings for her supper. She brilliantly channels a variety of voices and moods. I just sat back and beamed with pride at her performance. That’s how affecting it was. Mind you, McKenzie is hardly a slouch. He, too, is masterful at spinning a yarn and making it his own … and at switching dispositions when the script calls for it.

Photo: Teresa Noble

The set is simple but most effective (set and costume design is by Laura Jean Hawkins), consisting of the couple’s home. A designer light fitting hanging from the ceiling matches Helen’s shiny red heels. Director Mark Wilson doesn’t put a foot wrong in extracting the most out of Gow’s prose. He keeps a tight rein on proceedings. As a result of the cast and crew’s collective endeavours, Sweet Phoebe is triumphant.

With a running time of 80 minutes without interval, it’s playing at Red Stitch Theatre in St Kilda until 3 March 2019.

Alex First

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