THE READERS, 25a at Downstairs Belvoir, 5-19 May 2018. Photography by Clare Hawley: above Scott Smart and John McNeill; below - Anni Finsterer; below again: Smart and McNeill
Over the course of its 85 minutes, Scott Smart’s first play turns a spotlight on the world of the Meter Reader. This is one of those jobs – milkman, bus conductor, wheelwright, whale flenser, benevolent capitalist – that is fast disappearing. Technology and the profit motive are seeing to that.
Meanwhile, young Lachlan (also Scott Smart) is freshly arrived in Sydney with a dodgy job history and barely enough money to pay the rent. So a chance at becoming a trainee meter reader – outdoors, healthy lifestyle, Eastern ’burbs, pop down to the beach in your lunch break – seems heaven-sent.
Lachlan is paired with Peter (John McNeill) an older style of bloke who knows the ropes inside out and backwards, as he’s very keen to demonstrate. Peter is a retiree with an expensively ailing old dad – so he too badly needs the job. He’s magnanimous with his advice and insider tips, particularly how to deal with nasty dogs and even nastier householders. And how to unofficially employ a screwdriver to gain access to security gates.
Keeping a beady eye on their daily progress by phone or surprise field visits is middle manager Annie (Anni Finsterer). Her interest in Lachlan is on the uneasy side of predatory. That her boss, and therefore their big boss is also her husband only adds to the precarious nature of the job: timed to the minute. (Just 15 minutes between meter reads, no lunch break, no quick swim, forget pee stops and – like Peter – carry an empty energy drink bottle in your backpack and find a convenient back alley.)
Actor Elizabeth Nabben makes her directorial debut with The Readers and does a fine job with a play whose outcome is muddled by conflicting goals and either too little too much emphasis on those various targets. Smart and McNeill have the best of the characterisations and the script as they move through the stages of cautious camaraderie to friendship. While Finsterer is too good an actor to be messing about with the banality of her character – she gives it undeserved credibility and that also unbalances the piece.
Nevertheless, there is adroit thinking in the play and its playing. Through the staging and actual business of reading a meter the audience is gently encouraged to view these two with benevolent patronage: quaint lower class workers who are mostly invisible despite their fluoro vests. But we learn that Peter was a school teacher, Lachlan is a university dropout and their version of bloke talk is to guess the first lines of famous novels. Unlike the two men, the character of Annie is a problematic cliche of the older vamp woman and there seems little to be done with her as she pops up in unlikely places for unlikely reasons.
Peter and Lachlan’s hourly-rate, sun or rain, day-to-day is lived on the streets and porches of the richest part of Australia’s richest city. Jeremy Allen’s setting reeks of that irony: a nondescript laneway gravel surface, a few scrubby eucalyptus branches, a meter box and a padlock for the picking of.
Matt Cox’s lighting is tauntingly sunny when not going to black between scenes and all these elements are underpinned by composer and sound designer Grace Ferguson’s street noise, occasional gulls and sirens and the desultory hum of other people having a better time elsewhere.
Staged as part of Belvoir’s new 25A independent theatre by new(ish) creative minds, The Readers is all about potential and the opportunity to work at realising it. The audience, on a well attended Wednesday night, was engaged and entertained by a couple of characters rarely seen on an Australian stage and, if not continually interrupted by another character whose purpose is dubious, The Readers is something of an embryonic Waiting For Godot In Bondi. Meanwhile, you'll probably go home and de-spider your meter box.