The Big Time. Everyone has an idea of what it means, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that can give an all-encompassing, objective statement defining it. I believe that’s because everyone’s ‘big time’ is different. Making the big time could mean getting married. It could also mean directing Hugh Jackman in an independent film. Or learning the floss dance when you are over 30 years of age.
The beauty of David Williamson’s new comedy is that it addresses all of these perceptions of the ‘big time’ (yes, even the floss dance one). It’s a deftly-woven tale from the man who draws the ire of innumerable high school drama students (I’m still getting over his ‘if roots were hamburgers she could feed an army’ line from The Removalists), standing as another great addition to his seemingly endless list of stage and screen credits. An apt performance by the cast, who need to jump through numerous comedic and dramatic hoops throughout the show, ensures that Williamson’s words get much of the respect they deserve, even if at times it may not seem so.
It must be said that the play seems to take some time to explain each character before any real clear plot takes place. We learn of struggling writer Rohan Black’s (Jeremy Walters) defiant self-belief, unmirrored by any other character, a while before his chance at a Netflix series presents itself. We hear about the ego battle between Logie-winning ‘soapie’ star Celia Constanti (Aileen Huynh) and theatre-is-the-only-true-art-form-have-some-goddamn-self-respect-Jesus-Christ-this-is-a-long-hyphenation-but-perfectly-sums-up-the-character-of Vicki Fielding (Claudia Barrie) long before we see it demonstrated as they continuously one-up each other for various roles in various projects. Somewhere in the middle of all this, the external force that is Rolly Pierce (Ben Wood) chugs along, losing his wife to a real estate agent, his daughter to her unborn child, and his car to some company called Uber whilst organising a high school reunion and the idea for Black’s Netflix series. However, this shouldn’t be viewed negatively. Rather, Williamson has given us time to understand, sympathise, and at times despise each member either for what they do or what they are forced to do by the customs of the industry they are in.
This discernment of this duality heaps another challenge onto the cast, and for the most part this (and the others) are strongly tackled. Walters, no doubt off the renewed high of The Rolling Stone‘s and The Flick’s successes, flexes his range like Arnold at the 1975 Mr. Olympia. There’s an internalisation to his characterisation that suits Rohan perfectly, partnered with a fight between earning respect and holding respect for the self that is highly engaging. His comedic timing is also strong enough to get the most out of his quips and deliberate pauses. Constanti and him are a fine pairing, if Constanti’s alleged naivety can make Huynh’s performance come across as not internalised enough at times. Fielding, who is mostly seen in the show’s first half, also suffers from this lack of internalisation; Barrie tries to take us down her journey of unbridled arrogance, but gets a little waylaid as she attempts to balance desperation for recognition with a firm belief in her own talent, throwing out different signals to the audience that run the risk of going scrambled. Zoe Carides as agent Nelli Browne and Matt Minto as producer Nate Macklin provide fine supporting performances, appearing only sporadically but never dousing the flame of the show’s leads. Yet, Wood’s performance has to be the standout; his unpretentiousness, incredible mastery of the show’s humour, and skill in jumping from comedy to tragedy in the same line make his debut for Ensemble one to remember. In a small cast crowded with talent, his onstage presence is the most welcome.
Ultimately, Williamson and Mark Kilmurry (whose direction has never failed to impress and still doesn’t) have shown to me why I hold Ensemble to such a high standard. It’s a disgrace this show is two hours, the second half so short, and the cast so good, but a disgrace I’ll force myself to live with. Another great start to 2019.