The title tells you all [by James Wenley]
The ‘awkward’ brand of humour is one well known to audiences. Popularised in modern times by the Ricky Gervais School of comedy, it employs cringe, painful pauses, and a whiff of nastiness to sell its humour. Thomas Sainsbury has long done his own successful spin on the genre, and is a great match working for the first time with the Outfit Theatre Company with Director Benjamin Henson for their annual Christmas show. The title is a very good clue as to whether you’ll enjoy this play. Believe me; this family Christmas is awkward indeed.
We open on a suspiciously happy couple Polly (Jacqui Nauman) and Percy (Andrew Ford): he’s reading the newspaper, she’s creaming a Pavlova, and both send adoring smiles across the John Parker designed room. It’s the one moment of relative calm the play affords us; then (this reviewer attempting to remain sensitive, which the play does not do), Polly awkwardly walks, feet inward, across the room and we realise she is a few kiwifruit short of a pav (Nauman making a late play for the ‘The GAIL COWAN MANAGEMENT Award for Best Actress/Actor Playing a Character with a Disability/Medical Condition of the Year’ Hackman Theatre Award). Percy launches into a foul rant. Whenever anyone else is around, Percy pretends to be mentally impaired for his own perverse reasons, Ford channeling his Tweedle Dum character from Alice earlier this year. Those are only the first two characters we meet.
Polly is part of a large family all convening at their house for Xmas. The dramatic snag is that this is the first Christmas her parents Trevor (Mick Innes) and Denise (Michelle Leuthart) are spending as a divorced couple. Joining them are the siblings: stoner Buddy (Cole Jenkins), and bizarre, intimately inappropriate twins (who “happen to live together”) Keith (Joel Herbert) and Keitha (Kate Vox) with matching bleach blonde hair and white and peach sporty outfits with sweater capes. And if this isn’t enough, there are also three outsiders for conflict: Mum’s new lesbian life partner Kaz (Laura Daniel), Dad’s new flame Felicia (Heidi Kauta) and Buddy’s best mate John (Brad Johnson), a white Tongan. And finally, the day is repeatedly interrupted by annoying and needy neighbour Winston (Chris Tempest) wearing very short shorts.
Sainsbury often writes more parts than there are actors in his plays, somewhat out of necessity, and it’s rewarding to see his play come to outlandish life with such a large cast. As we have come to expect and demand from an Outfit show, the ensemble acting is excellent. Regulars Tempest, Ford and Nuaman are particularly adept at their off-the-wall characterisations. Vox and Herbert have the most fun bouncing off each other as the freaky Twins and they feel the most original creations. Very special mention to 2012 Unitec Graduates Laura Daniel and Cole Jenkins (coming straight off their final year Jacques Brel show, also directed by Henson) who deliver very clever performances.
With so many characters and plots in play (a sample: Dad wants Mum back, Kaz is looking for a sperm donor, Buddy wants to start a new hemp business…) Henson manages the flow of encounters and general stage business with precision. The humour itself is hit and miss – stoners, small dick jokes and lesbian gags are easy targets and overdone, while Polly’s gifts to the family are belly laugh genius. At times the comedy is borderline offensive, really pushing both the awkward and uncomfortableness factors.
The genre-jumping ending didn’t satisfy (though I acknowledge it’s earlier set-up). It seemed a too convenient destructive dues ex machina to end the play and wrap the storylines, rather than coming more naturally out of the odd dynamic of the full family.
Having said that, wonderfully, there are no heart warming Christmas messages to be found either (Henson says he wants to “share the hell that is Christmas with others”). At times the play and characters can be an excruciating watch, but it rewards with the laughs and achieves exactly what it set out to do. A comic blowout for the silly season, if you’re a lover of all things awkward, this is the show for you.
An Awkward Family Christmas is presented by Outfit Theatre Company in Association with STAMP at The Edge and plays at The Herald until 1 December. More details see THE EDGE.