I know I will look back on this day as an old, old man.
There’s a kitchen table. Another kitchen table. Four chairs. Two bowls stacked neatly in the middle, spoons. In the darkness, the shuffle of feet, and as the lights rise, we see Daniel (Leon Ford), stretching against a chair, arms outstretched on its back. As he starts speaking, we know something’s not right.
“Something is missing,” we are told in the season book. “The phone is not working, and the kids’ toys are not in their usual spot under the television. In fact, [Daniel’s] wife and children seem to have disappeared.” We’re not told how or when, nor even a why; they just are. Missing, gone, disappeared. As Daniel begins to try to piece it together, tries to make sense of it, we meet his mother (Gillian Jones) and later his wife, Sam (Alison Bell), and kids, Charlotte and Harry. This part, Part One, is strung through with a strong sense of loss and losing, of the vacuum that exists when the carpet is torn from under your feet and you’re left struggling to pick up the pieces. And we are never told what happened, why they are effectively in disparate albeit overlapping places. Part Two begins after a lengthy (somewhat clunky) interlude of blackout, and is immediately – noticeably – different for its presence and abundance of activity and life, of its warm familial feel. Like Part One though, Part Two is also strung through with a sense of loss or a vacuum (albeit, not as strong as the former), the hole that exists from not knowing one’s father (or, more specifically, one of your parents), how you might try and fix that if it is at all possible.
Written by Matthew Whittet, it is full of acutely observed mannerisms and scenes, well-written dialogue and rhythms that are, for the most part, well-delivered and naturalistic. The cast, something Belvoir uniformly gets right ninety-nine percent of the time, is solid – Leon Ford’s Daniel is frustrated and intense, and warmly fatherish, a heartbreaking portrayal of loss and rediscovery, who at times seems bewildered by the chaotic and rambunctious dynamic of family. This could be, we are led to believe, because growing up there was only him and his mum, an oddly cold-hearted Gillian Jones. It’s not that the role is written that way, but rather the delivery – the warmth is there, but just well below the surface. Being the second preview, I’d assume there is still room to warm into the role throughout the play’s already-extended run. Alison Bell (who was a marvelously grounded Rosalind in last year’s magical As You Like It) as Daniels’ wife, Sam, is wonderful – heartbroken and eloquent, lovingly warm and motherly, sometimes similarly bewildered at her family’s rhythms. Peter Carroll as Daniel’s long-absent father is another well-written examination of the central idea of loss and absence, of unknowing and rediscovery, and his scene with Daniel is both awkward and beautiful at once; what exactly do you say to the son you haven’t seen for thirty-two years who arrives on your doorstep?
Comprised of the aforementioned two parts, not quite acts, each seems almost a mirror to the other, where the first is characterized by an emptiness – both in the narrative scenario and in the blocking – the second is defined by its abundance of movement, the ‘ness’ that makes families tick. The central dining table becomes almost an altar for family-ness, for the rhythms and hum of life, a communal site for the sharing and appreciation of each other’s company; where conversations and moments are shared, where questions are asked (including the relentlessly unforgiving and inevitable age-old favourite, ‘why?’) and answers aren’t always forgiven, where you can make sense (or try to) of what you do and or don’t have, what you’ve lost and why, how you find something you didn’t really know you’d lost, or fix something you didn’t know was broken.
It’s interesting here, in looking at the writing, how the first part breaks down the fourth wall almost immediately, as Daniel talks to us, tells us what’s not-quite-right. It’s almost like drawing a literal stylistic connection between Old Man and Food, its predecessor in Belvoir’s Downstairs theatre, and I think it works beautifully in the tiny ninety-seat Downstairs theatre, almost like painting with words, something I don’t think would work as well in their Upstairs theatre (Tom Holloway’s Love Me Tender (2010) is perhaps the exception here). Whittet – and Ford’s – evocation of a police officer is particularly memorable, acutely observed down to the mannerisms and slight heel-lifts, slightly disjointed speech patterns. “Go home, make yourself a nice cup of tea – or other such comforting drink – and watch the cricket. We may not be winning, but there’s no reason why you cannot enjoy the game sufficiently.”
Despite these interesting good things, there were a couple of other things that didn’t quite work as well as they should have. Stefan Gregory’s music, which is so often finely-attuned to the world of the play, felt overbearing and over-present, sonically dominating the tiny space in the scene changes, discordant and sounding a bit like an ensemble with no concept of time. The first time the music played it sounded good, but after the third or fourth time in five or ten minutes it became too much too quickly. Similarly, the ‘ding’ in the second part to denote or demarcate a shift in the time or scene of the play; it was too obvious, too expected and blatant to be effective – surely there’s another and altogether more subtle way to do it, through a shift in the actors’ focus or a slight change in the lighting state. Similarly, the blackouts in the first part were too laboured and clunky, too threatening, to be of any clever and integrated use in the piece.
Old Man does have a lot going for it – its well-written, well-staged, simple, clean, matter-of-fact thisishowitis, but structurally – narratively – I think there are still a few holes in it, a few scenes missing that could take it from being good to being better, more than just ‘good.’ I wanted to know not so much how or why Daniel’s family was missing, but the impact upon them of losing him, what they did to look for him; we saw so much of Daniel trying to cope with losing them that it felt a bit lop-sided, favouring his experiences too much to be truly moving. Alison Bell’s scene – where she talked about meeting Daniel – was beautifully written and told, eloquent in its mundanity, so much so that I wanted more, wanted to know more about them and their time together, them as a couple and as a new family. In Part Two, I wanted another scene with Daniel and his father, maybe with Daniel’s family – how do they react to this new person in their lives? Or between Daniel and his wife, discussing their son’s question about ‘who is your dad? Why don’t we know him?’ a question so simple that only a child could ask it, cutting through the audience like a knife. Or, a scene with Daniel’s disappointment at his father; a moment between Daniel and his son, ‘what sort of dad am I?’ It is, after all, the point of that half of the play, isn’t it? In fact, the point of the play.
Whittet, along with director Anthea Williams, has created a play which, as a presentation of inner-west middle-class life, is warm yet heartbreaking; like life itself, it’s not without its flaws and unresolved questions and or issues. As an exploration of family-ness and fatherhood, and the void of not knowing either or, I think there are still unanswered questions in the writing and staging that could be built upon, taken further, elaborated and opened out, should the opportunity arise. A lot of Old Man is already there, I just think it could be better, it could be more than it is. After all, which father doesn’t want the very best for their children? Which parent doesn’t want their child to be the best they can be?