CRUISE CONTROL, Ensemble Theatre, 26 April-14 June (SOLD OUT), Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, 18-21 June, extra performances at The Concourse, Chatswood, June 24-25, 2014. Photography by Clare Hawley (above) Peter Phelps, Michelle Doake, Helen Dallimore, Henri Szeps, Felix Williamson and Kate Fitzpatrick; (right) Henri Szeps and Kate Fitzpatrick.
David Williamson is no stranger to plundering his own life for dramatic inspiration, but one suspects the idea for Cruise Control fell into his lap more fully-formed than most.
Two years ago, Williamson and his wife Kristin took a cruise on the Queen Mary 2 and were startled to find themselves expected to sit with the same people – complete strangers - for dinner each night for the full seven days of their voyage from London to New York.
It was the sort of dramatic set-up Williamson thrives on, and while his dining companions on that occasion “weren’t too bad”, not surprisingly his dramatic imagination was piqued.
In Cruise Control then, we meet three couples on the same voyage, each in the throes of a marital crisis. There’s long-suffering British book editor Fiona (Michelle Doake), married to the loathsome Richard (Felix Williamson), an author with an Oxford education and an ego inversely proportional to his book sales. There’s former Bra Boy turned surf wear millionaire Darren (Peter Phelps) and his wife, the glamorous former Ascham girl Imogen (Helen Dallimore). And finally, there’s elderly New York dentist Sol Wasserman (Henri Szeps) and his high-maintenance wife Silky (the marvellously sassy Kate Fitzpatrick).
All have come on board in a last-ditch attempt to save their rocky marriages, but not surprisingly, it turns out to be not quite the healing journey they had in mind.
This is the only new Williamson play at the Ensemble this year (although the theatre will present the Jack Manning Trilogy at The Concourse from August), and it’s a beauty.
Directing his own play, Williamson sets a cracking pace in the first half as, clever retorts flying, the tension builds between the arrogant and condescending Richard and the rest of the table.
The casting is terrific: Michelle Doake is wonderful as the mousy Fiona who finally finds the strength to stand up to her bullying husband, while Felix Williamson is skin-crawlingly good as the lounge lizard – “no, make that primordial slime” – Richard, and possessed of some very expressive eyebrows.
Henri Szeps imbues the obsessively detailed Sol with real emotional depth, and Peter Phelps and Helen Dallimore are fabulous too, although their characters feel underdeveloped compared to the others on board.
Newcomer Kenneth Moraleda breaks up the tension beautifully as Filipino waiter Charlie, whose own humility and good grace puts the arguments on board into perspective.
So with everything sailing comfortably and believably towards home, it’s curious then that Williamson would choose the final moment to throw a spanner in the works. His last plot twist pushes the boundaries of credulity to the limits and feels a little like an afterthought.
It’s a shame, but it’s only a quibble. For the most part, Cruise Control is still David Williamson at his sharp-witted, keenly observed and most enjoyable best