"The Readers"- Downstairs Belvoir
Belvoir’s new 25a Program aims to nurture and celebrate Australian voices. This much is clear from watching Scott Smart’s new play “The Readers”.
Smart’s semi-autobiographical story tracks the experiences of electricity meter readers working in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. Twenty-something Lachlan arrives on his first day of the job, greeted by his trainer Peter. Amidst poignant and beautifully crafted dialogue about private life hardships, and subtle allusions to Sydney’s increasingly visible class divide, the audience is offered insight into the strains of this job: the threat of dog mauling, resident abuse, asbestos poisoning and electrocution.
The play showcases a unique and recognisable Australian humour and tone, and prioritises these qualities over its plot. In fact, “The Readers” is a great example of observational writing: completely free of exposition and (to a degree) dramatic tension, yet by no means devoid of complex and profound statements. Smart’s writing style is, as such, refreshingly honest and realistic. This play (incredibly, his first) has been selected by 8th Buffalo Press to be published and will be an exciting addition to the Australian play’s canon, especially for its unique exploration of these figures in our culture. It focuses on the so-called “invisible” working class that we don’t hear a lot from in the – let’s face it – high-brow, and largely intellectual circles that show up at theatres. Perhaps it’s true that we’ve seen enough stories about the quintessential Aussie male, however it must be said that “The Readers” presents a loving, gentle story of male-friendship, which I feel I’ve hardly ever seen.
The playwright, Scott Smart, is a man of many talents it seems, as he is also the lead actor in this story. As Lachlan, Smart steps out of his prior experience in TV acting and into his theatre-debut with ease. He succeeds in making Lachlan loveable with a blend of self-deprecating humour and kindness. In this jumpy, shy and intelligent character, Smart perfects a depiction of a typical Sydney millennial struggling to hold a job and pay their rent.
John McNeill as Peter stole the show. McNeill fills the stage with a bold energy and is an expert at managing the tone shifts between an overwhelmingly positive figure, and a heartbreakingly worn out, ageing and frustrated man. McNeil is terribly funny, and has mastered his delivery of this nuanced and subtle form of comedy.
Finally, Anni Finsterer plays Annie, the woman from Auspower Head Office. Her role is, no doubt, the most vexing in the show, and she provides a performance that attempts to balance the story. She plays a somewhat one-dimensional version of female-power, and yet later in the piece brings a profound and complex vulnerability to the role. It’s a difficult task to pull off and Finsterer does so, without missing the chance to get the audience laughing.
This is Elizabeth Nabben’s directorial debut, and it is a success. Her choice to sustain a consistent and appropriate pace for the tricky text is surely a result of her experience as an actor. There’s a deliberateness to the way in which these characters are allowed to be drawn so slowly. This choice ultimately emphasises the deftness and lightness of the story and allows it to be told without losing the audience’s attention.
The production works well given its limited budget (a requirement of the 25a Program is that each production has a strict budget of $1500), and it’s difficult to imagine this play in any other context. This intricate three-hander deserves to be played out on an intimate stage with a minimal set. The dialogue is our meat in “The Readers”, and this has been recognised by the creative team. That said, it’s impossible not to appreciate Matt Cox’s clever lighting design- and his ability to fill the space with shadows of iconic Australian flora. What’s more, the story relies a lot on the use of technology, and this is communicated effectively by sound-designer Grace Ferguson.
Sure, “The Readers” might not change your life. But it isn’t meant to. It is a play that tickles the funny bones and makes us smile for its honest examination of ourselves. Smart’s play tackles themes that are relevant to us all, and yet seemingly haven’t been addressed before on Sydney stages. I highly recommend getting Downstairs to see this extremely clever, and simply satisfying show.