August 21, 2013

Emotionally illuminating portrait of a family’s grief

August 21, 2013
Adelaide Theatre

by Rita Kalnejais
State Theatre Company
Space Theatre
Adelaide Festival Centre.
August 20. Tickets $ 25 – $ 65
Bookings: BASS 131 246,
Until September 7.
Duration : 2 hours 20 minutes including interval

“How do you live like you’ve got nothing to lose ? “ that is the question playwright Rita Kalnejais poses as the starting point for Babyteeth, a captivating, sometimes audacious, comic drama about Milla, a terminally ill teenage girl, learning about herself and her life – even as she is about leave it.

These are not new themes and despite – perhaps because of – the inconsolable sadness of the subject, the danger of mawkish sentimentality is high. In her imaginative, candid, often unexpected narrative strategies, Kalnejais provides an emotionally illuminating portrait of a family’s grief that (while risking such possibilities) is neither maudlin nor merely quirky.

First performed last year in a well-received season at Belvoir Theatre, Babyteeth now reappears in a memorable new production from State Theatre and Brink Productions director Chris Drummond. Using the full width of the Space stage, Wendy Todd’s open design comprises large slatted wooden panels as backdrops and convertible room dividers, all warmly, often intriguingly side- lit, by the ever- inventive Geoff Cobham. Composed by cellist Hilary Kleinig, the music, an important theme in the play, combines seamlessly with Andrew Howard’s detailed sound design.

As with his other productions, including the now-classic When the Rain Stops Falling, Drummond is a meticulous director, layering and combining the stage elements with assurance and flair. In Babyteeth, he has vivid writing and rich particulars to work with and his actors have ample space – figuratively and literally- to explore.

The actors are excellent, undeterred even by a forty-five minute interruption in the first half of the opening night performance, due to a medical emergency for an audience member. As the parents, Henry and Anna Finlay, struggling with the impending loss of their daughter, yet programmatically optimistic and determined to make the best of every situation, Chris Pitman and Claire Jones, capably combine Kalnejais’ satiric middle class elements – Henry, the measured psychiatrist and Anna, the hovering mother – with the depth of feeling in the text.

Paul Blackwell relishes his role as Gidon, the querulous émigré violin teacher, mentor to schoolboy prodigy Thuong (Lawrence Mau) and unlikely spirit guide to Anna. Alyssa Mason does well as the young, heavily pregnant Toby, the all-too conspicuous life-force in the play.

The success of the production, though, hinges on the splendidly pitched central performances. Firstly, from Matt Crook, believably sympathetic as Moses – the gormless, bedraggled stranger in the House of Finlay- Milla’s unlikely, newest, and last best friend and, finally, Danielle Catanzariti’s Milla, tiny and vulnerable, but also vibrant and determined to live (and die) authentically ; fragile as an egg, and tough as the fate she is confronting.

Murray Bramwell

Published online as “Emotionally illuminating portrait of a family’s grief” The Australian, August 21, 2013.

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