The KIN Collective stands out on Melbourne’s indie theatre scene. Actor-led ensembles are common enough, but few unite experienced, popular actors (Noni Hazlehurst is a member, as is Marg Downey) with rising talent in the same way. It can be a riveting combination. Anyone who saw their 2014 production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane trilogy could only marvel at the ambition and histrionic achievement, and no one who saw Hazlehurst’s tour de force as Mag will ever forget it. This time, the company tackles Amelia Roper’s Lottie In The Late Afternoon, where four old friends face disconnections on a holiday from hell.
Thirtysomethings Lottie (Laura Maitland) and her partner Ryan (Linc Hasler) have booked a weekend away from the relentless grind of New York. They arrive to discover their cottage rests on the edge of a terrifying cliff – a symbol of the disasters that lie in wait as they try to unwind. Their guests bring awkward complications. Clara (Michala Banas), annoyed at being treated like a spiky lesbian third-wheel by Lottie, is pricked into revealing she’s having an affair with their friend Anne (Ally Fowler). For her part, Anne appears late, fresh from an abortion clinic, as the play spirals into a comedy of excruciation where modern friendship is taken offline and dismantled through slightly whimsical, heightened but still recognisable characters, all battling self-absorption and toxic nostalgia to find moments of genuine connection or even contentment in solitude.
Roper’s labile relationship comedy feels almost like a riposte to Joanna Murray-Smith’s Three Little Words, another recent play featuring a straight and queer couple. No lesbian paragons here: they’re allowed to muddle through and be just as sad and awful as everyone else, and they get to vent more realistically: “I’m sick of you always getting drunk,” says Clara of her straight female friends, “and kissing me when you’re sad!” It’s Downey’s directorial debut and it has plenty of sharply tuned humour (as you’d expect from such a talented comedienne), but it’s laughter from the dark. Ridiculousness and wince-worthy situational comedy spring from a pool of tedium and profound disconsolation.
Maitland’s Lottie tries to rise above with a luminous and compelling otherworldliness that keeps falling into little potholes of self-consciousness or narcissism. She’s not a great listener, and brings a disturbing hilarity to the way people talk across or through each other without meaning to. Banas bristles with the cynical veneer of a lonely romantic clinging to delusion and abandoning herself to wine, while Fowler’s earthy, hedonistic Anne causes chaos even as she tries to make the best of things. Hasler as the lone man surrounded by women brings a toe-curling haplessness to the play’s gender politics.
This production gives the sense of a new comedy being wrestled into being. It’s an unpredictable form that’s never alive until it’s in front of an audience and some of its humour falls flat. The pace could also do with a tune-up. These are minor quibbles. It’s a slick production and a fresh new comedy that speaks to the zeitgeist.