Spencer, a new Australian play by Katy Warner, opened its two-show run at QUT’s Gardens Theatre on Friday night as part of a three-month national tour, produced by new writing theatre company Lab Kelpie. This contemporary Australian dramedy follows the reunion of AFL star Scott with his mother Marilyn, brother Ben, sister Jules and long-estranged father Ian, all of whom gather to meet Scott’s infant son Spencer for the first time.
Rob Sowinski and Bryn Cullen’s artful set design made a fantastic first impression on the Gardens Theatre audience. With its 1970s-reminiscent caravan wall panelling, clusters of mismatched family photos, trophy shelf and swinging screen door, the suburban Australian home was unmistakably and authentically evoked. The costumes, too, offered a great insight into character while fitting into the contemporary Australian aesthetic. Such attention to detail in design is admirable in a touring production, where the constant setup and pack down processes must tempt designers toward bare bones décor.
All five actors offered strong character depictions, although the standout performance of the night was Lyall Brooks as lovable no-hoper Ben. With his animated delivery and comic physicality, Brooks brought this familiar brother figure to life with aplomb, frequently prompting the audience to fits of laughter. Jane Clifton played matriarch Marilyn with conviction, and her drunk acting in the later stages of the play was a definite highlight. The sibling dynamic between Jamieson Caldwell’s Scott and Fiona Harris’ Jules was engaging, particularly during their argument over the artistic merits (or lack thereof) of Ringo Starr. Roger Oakley rounded out the cast as absentee father Ian, and was highly effective as the family member the audience (and other characters) loved to hate.
Director Sharon Davis is to be congratulated for drawing out the comic potential of the script through thoughtful use of staging and several clever sight gags. Scene transitions were well handled with thematically appropriate song choices and actors remaining in character as they moved props and furniture pieces around the stage. The lavish spreading of party streamers all over the floor during one late scene change was a comic highlight in itself.
Reminiscent of family homecoming dramas such as Hotel Sorrento, albeit with a lighter tonal quality, Spencer ably taps into universal themes such as the pressures placed on the ‘golden child’ of a family, and the truism that aggression amongst family members is often a thin veil for the deep affection and loyalty that lies beneath. An amusing portrait of the ups and downs of modern family life, Katy Warner’s play is a fun night at the theatre.