Originally commissioned by Black Swan State Theatre Company and first produced in 2014, Aidan Fennessy’s The House on the Lake is a crisp combination of whodunit mystery and psychological thriller. A taut two-hander, the play unfolds in a series of loops, and sees David – a lawyer suffering from anterograde amnesia – trying to remember where he is and what has happened to him. As the play evolves and hurtles towards its thrilling conclusion, Fennessy drip-feeds us details, deliberately misdirecting us only to throw another clue into play before the scene is out.
It’s rare for a new (Australian) play to get a second production, but like STCSA’s productions of Babyteeth, Between Two Waves, Neighbourhood Watch, and This Is Where We Live in the past three years, Fennessy’s play gets a new lease of life thanks to director Kim Hardwick in this Griffin Theatre Company production. Set upon a clinical and sparse set designed by Stephen Curtis, Huw Higginson and Jeanette Cronin lead us through the labyrinthine layers of memory and deception, the focus on David’s recovery, his remembering, as much as on the tests and coaxing from the doctor, Alice. Higginson plays David with a haunting vulnerability, his relapse into amnesia at the end of each scene visceral and painful to watch. Cronin’s
is firm but warm, gentle on occasion, and her despair at having to reiterate
the who, where, and why, at the top of each scene is palpable. Alice
As with any good mystery-whodunit, you try to guess the outcome almost from the first clues, but Fennessy’s cleverness here lies not so much in when the clues are revealed but how. We are given glimpses of information, clues, tiny fragments which may or may not add up, but it’s not until the final scene when it all unravels. As Fennessy’s dramaturgical control of the unfolding story tightens – as we reach the inescapable conclusion – it’s hard not to get caught up in the story, hard not to stop second-guessing the outcome and just let the play work its magic on you.
It’s hard to try to convey the full extent of the brilliance of Fennessy’s play – of the whole experience – without spoiling the ending or the ninety wonderful minutes of brain-workout. Kelly Ryall’s taut strings score and subliminal underscore, combined with Martin Kinane’s gradual shifts in lighting – from natural daylight to harsh fluorescence and intense saturated blues – complete this atmospheric and intelligent play. While the references to Edgar Allen Poe provide a neatness to the ending which perhaps seems at odds with the rest of the play, it also offers the potential for a production to explore a much darker and more gothic sensibility, to truly delve into the nightmare David finds himself in.