A story of existential dread for the millennial set, Sicko is based around Francis (Zak Enayat), a young man who is trying to figure out his place in life. While he contemplates a new job that he has no interest in, his great Aunt Kay (Victoria Abbott) and best friend Ellie (Chye-Ling Huang) are afraid he is on the way to becoming yet another mindless drone with nothing to live for.
Written by Alex MacDonald and directed by Matt Baker, Sicko is not lacking for ambition. In an era marked by a growing wealth gap, declining quality of life, and a looming climate disaster, it is admirable for not only trying to tackle a story rooted in contemporary ailments, but doing so while also juggling multiple tones and visual strategies, and all in the limited space of the Basement Studio.
This is one of those shows where the concept and themes are evident, but the final product ends up feeling like a fogged up window – you get a vague idea of the idea but it is hard to get a handle on specifics.
The show’s great success is in its cast: Enayat and Huang have a believable rapport; Abbott manages to overcome a baffling costume choice to make Aunt Kay believable; Jason Hodzelmans makes a meal of his limited time as one of Francis’s homogenised friends AND a work colleague in the process of being homogenised; and Ben Van Lier is great fun as the diabolical guide who appears in various guises to lure Francis to his doom.
The key issue with Sicko is that the main character that all of the action revolves around never feels fleshed out.
It is one thing to have a central character who is afraid of becoming an automaton for late capitalism, but Francis’s dilemma never really comes to the fore because we have little to contextualise it with: we are told by other characters that Francis is in danger of cutting out everything about himself that is not geared toward upward mobility, but we never get a sense of what makes him unique: What are his hopes? What are his dreams? What are his interests?
By the end of the show, it seems his most interesting quality seems to be a florid shirt.
We understand that he has no clear idea of what he wants to do, but we also never really get a sense of what he cares about, which means his lowest point lacks a sense of stakes.
The other element that undermines the pathos of Francis’s story is a subplot involving a pair of backstage staff, One and Two, played by Hamish Parkinson and Angella Dravid.
The premise of this subplot is that Two (Dravid) wants more out of life, and wants to know more about the world offstage. As the show progresses, and Two’s desire to be more than just a stagehand grows, this subplot begins to actively work against the pathos of Francis’s story.
It seems to be an attempt to take the idea of people stuck in specific roles, and how they rebel against them to achieve their own identities. Thematically, this is vaguely in line with the main plot, but it is a flawed way of expressing this idea, and never feels of a piece with the main narrative.
It is a shame, because Hamish Parkinson and Angella Dravid are really funny, and I would love to see them bicker and solve mysteries in another show, but in the context of Sicko, their scenes are at odds with the rest of the show – and take up time which could have been spent fleshing out Francis’ main narrative a bit more.
While it does not hit every target it is aiming for, Sicko is never not watchable – the oscillation between Francis’s and the stagehands’ respective crises is confounding (and ultimately detrimental), MacDonald is onto something here with this story and its themes. It might just need a slightly different vehicle to reach its potential.
Sicko plays Basement Theatre until 17 August.