So can someone tell me when the Ensemble Theatre actually started producing work worth crossing the bridge for? Have I been missing out? If ‘Great Falls’ is anything to go by, it may be time to invest in a train ticket to Milson’s Point on a regular basis because I certainly liked what I saw.
‘Great Falls’, written by Lee Blessing and directed by Anna Crawford was a pleasant surprise. The play revolves around two characters, ‘Bitch’ played by Erica Lovell and ‘Monkey Man’ Christopher Stollery. Sure, my first impression when you see those names is ‘if you can’t even give your characters names, what am I about to watch?’ But the names are a key part of the relationship and perception these characters have of each other and themselves. Monkey Man is the ex-step-father of Bitch, who convinces her to take a road trip to try to rekindle an understanding of the trust and fatherly affection once felt and to find a way to reconcile and say goodbye. Of course, that’s no easy task as Monkey Man struggles to express the breakdown of his marriage to his ex-wife and Bitch struggles to let him. Add in a tilt or two when suddenly Monkey Man gets what he wants in the most unexpected way and must now decide what he needs to do with this new found responsibility.
Stollery and Lovell are a strong duo. Whilst Stollery has been a class act on stage for years and I had no doubt I’d see good work from him (which I did), I was most impressed with Lovell. There was never a moment I didn’t believe her and she had some very difficult material to unpack on stage. They both convinced me of their relationship, their flaws, their history and in their journey I felt for each of them.
Whilst I’m always going to prefer a play that doesn’t need to dress itself up to convince me of how clever it is, of a narrative where the relationships are at the heart of the play and in that, we are subject to issues that resonate with a reality of our world, it is a play out of fashion with what we’re seeing right now. ‘Great Falls’ is all of those things, told simply and with respect. Blessing’s writing is at the core of Crawford’s direction and the actors have been allowed to enter the characters from the words and not swing from a trapeze or fly across the stage to communicate that to us.
Michael Hankin’s design allows for a versatily of location; two car seats that double up as motel beds, park benches, etc. Even nuance of who moves what and when is interesting, from the early days when Monkey Man is left with the labour to a joint action until Bitch is left in the driver’s seat. It’s a little thing, I know, but nice to see Hankin’s set used to further explore this relationship through some clever directing.
Another shout out to lighting and AV designer, Verity Hampson and composer/sound designer Stephen Toulmin. I loved Hampson’s visual representations of middle America’s famous landmarks and the mood they provided on stage or even the contrast they supplied to the action and relationship of the characters, as enhanced by the soundtrack of Toulmin’s. Even the wall can be lit in a way that makes you feel like you’re looking at a map of the USA and the colours of muddy and red brown highlight the dusty road our characters travel. Given that ‘Great Falls’ is playing in rep with another show, it’s a clever use of elements so as not to mark the stage for one narrative only.
So may I be so bold to suggest that those who have avoided the Ensemble might want to revisit that idea. I think you’ll like what you see. And to all those school students who bash the ‘Bombshells’ play to death for the opportunity to sport a wedding dress and panic at the ceremony for your HSC monologue, may I point out that the Ensemble is bringing the play back to the stage in March so maybe this will be a good time to go.
For everyone else, maybe it’s ‘Great Falls’ that will get you there and without a harness in sight.