Reviewed by Ana Obradovic
Director Sue Wylie has lovingly brought to life Brenton Whittle’s easy-going reflection on death in Well, Shut My Mouth. This new local play, boasting a confident and cohesive cast, meditates on what it means to “slip on to the other side” through the eyes of three generations of a very Australian family.
True to its “dark comedy” promise, the story begins at the end – the end of patriarch Clary Hobbs’ life. Alone in a hospital bed, mouth wide open, the audience is introduced to the recently departed figure of William Clarence “Clarry” Hobbs (Andrew Horwood). The looming panels of his shabby, off-coloured hospital room make for an unsettling opening scene. The illusion of serious, deathly deliberation is shattered almost immediately, however, with the entrance of his rowdy, stomping nurse (Helena Kordina). As she tends to the corpse and speaks with a booming voice about the “poor bugger”, it quickly becomes clear that this isn’t going to be an emotional, tear-jerking reflection on family bondage and existential questions.
The Hobbs’ family, who enter from off-stage, are loud-mouthed and represent the quintessentially dysfunctional Australian horde. Returning to Clarry’s hospital bed they declare, “We were only having a fag!”, and begin reflecting good-naturedly on their dearly departed. Word play and inadvertent double entendres ensue. Lines are delivered with a good-humoured ease that keeps the dialogue feeling natural and proudly ocher.
In a particularly amusing scene, Clarry’s wife, Mary (Julie Quick), becomes convinced that mobile phone “micro-waves” can bring the dead to life, while hippie aromatherapist daughter, Betty Barks (Jenny Allan) sprinkles the body with a blend of patchouli, mushroom and garlic scents. Such shennaningans sustain the plot the whole way through, and are interspersed with monologue from Clarry himself, who speaks directly to the audience with matter-of-fact banter that takes full advantage of the repertoire of dead jokes available to the deceased. His dialogue and delivery are just excellent – Horwood’s timing is perfect, and his lecherous humour is just charming enough to get away with it.
There is an authenticity to the characters that keeps them from becoming Aussie charicatures. They shine with love and, at times, real emotion. The cast is talented and very funny. But while there are moments of seriousness, the overall attitude of the play seems to suggest that looking too seriously at the big questions in life is just too painful. Most characters are repressed in some way, and seem sadly trapped in that repression. Betty, who writes poetry that she hides from the world, admits that life has not turned out the way she planned. Her husband, Nick Barks (Malcolm Walton), is an ex-cop who is hostile to sentimentality and eccentric self-expression – especially when it comes to cross-dressing brother-in-law Craig Hobbs (Dave Salter). Their son, Billy Barks (Sebastien Skubala) is silent and “so weird” in the words of sister Tambourine Barks (Carolina Fioravanti).
The jokes zip from one mouth to another. But each time deeper issues come to the fore, they are typically sidestepped. Maybe this is just what Australian families do. But given the play’s emphasis on bringing realism to archetypes of Australian culture (lamingtons and cricket coolers, anyone?), I wish we could have seen some deeper character growth. Maybe this play could have acted as a model for those Australian families similarly trapped in gruff refusals to acknowledge emotional depths.
As it stands, however, Well, Shut My Mouth is excellently acted, smartly staged, and unquestionably charming enough to be well-worth a family night out.