Jess Sayer is a prolific writer who has won numerous awards including last year’s Bruce Mason Playwriting Award. As the company (We Three Productions) state, her work has been described as ‘razor-sharp’, ‘brave’, ‘absorbingly dark’ and ‘not for the faint-hearted’. So naturally we were expecting a dark story to unfold before our eyes.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The charm of Sham is not the shock factor that she has gained her reputation for. Sham is incredibly universal, with much of the story themed around family dynamics, including sibling rivalry and parent-child relationships. Sayer’s amazing ability to write dialogue in such a pithy, cryptic fashion draws us in as voyeurs as Meryl (Michele Hine) and Fern’s (Torum Heng) lives are turned upside down upon the arrival of unlikely dinner guests.
Her dialogue is also snappy and authentic, rolling off the tongues of the actors. Sayer displays an astute ability to paint vivid characters, and her crowning glory is Dame Neva Farris (Annie Whittle), a caricature of an opera singer. Whittle’s rendition of Farris at the peak (or wane) of her career is absolutely fabulous throughout. Whittle’s character exhibits a viper’s nest of scathing, arrogant, overbearing, self-centred, self-serving put downs and overtures with the glib, acerbic lines that Sayer feeds her.
As her long suffering and under appreciated partner Ann, Darien Takle is equally brilliant. She is very plausible as the put-upon partner and is a veritable foil and comedic commentary for many of the angst-driven family conversations that ensue. Similarly, Heng as the daughter Fern gives us a believable youngster who is often the voice of reason, as is Takle’s character. As Meryl’s daughter, Fern becomes a pawn in the feuding sisters’ fight for supremacy. So often the obnoxious daughter on stage is reduced to a whining stereotype but in this case it never happens. A much more subtle, compassionate 20-year-old was portrayed with more intelligence than I have seen for a while.
And last but definitely not least, Hine’s character Meryl is the glue that holds that whole piece together. Her understated acting could very easily be overlooked by the rest of the ‘louder’ characters but instead she displays excellent craftsmanship that is an absolute joy to watch. Meryl is never quite the protagonist, seemingly overtaken by events, but holds a quiet, fierce barricade of values and righteousness.
Director Conrad Newport’s creative choices treat this new work with care and light brush strokes. He resists the temptation to go OTT when family secrets are revealed, which results in a very caringly put together production which skilfully preserves Sayer’s writing – both deep and deft.
As befitting a lounge for a ‘family dinner’, Daniel Williams’ set and Russ King’s lighting are appropriately restrained, simple and effective complements to the fast paced action on stage.
The structure of the play is clear, simple and striking. The plot twists are not necessarily as obvious as first implied, but more tweaking of these twists’ reveals could heighten the dramatic pathos of the piece.
Somewhat reminiscent of the joys of Abigail’s Party, Sham lulls you in with the ‘normality’ of family relationships, threatens outrageous revelations and settles with the realisation that family, or pride, or esteem, or care, mean nothing when more important things are at stake.
Presented by We Three Productions, Sham plays at The Basement until 10 June. Details see The Basement
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Elle Wooton