THE BIG TIME
THE BIG TIME, Ensemble Theatre, 18 January-16 March 2019. Photography by Brett Broadman: above - Aileen Huynh and Claudia Barrie ; below - Zoe Carides and Aileen Huynh; below again - Ben Wood and Jeremy Waters
“The new Williamson” is eagerly anticipated each year like the arrival of the first Swallow of summer. Once sighted, all is well in the world of the Greater Snowy-breasted Subscriber.
The Big Time is distinctively Williamson – his 54th play in a 49-year career. There are sharp one-liners, the pathos beneath the comedy, the recognisably contemporary characters and situations – but this one has a darker afterburn.
Sandra Bates, long-time commissioner and director of his plays at the Ensemble, has written of his work,
“Many of his characters are deeply flawed, but at the core of his work there is a desire for a better society, a more tolerant society ... Almost always each of the characters goes on a journey through the events of the play and most of them grow and make positive changes in their lives.”
Not this time, however, not entirely anyway.
Celia (Aileen Huynh) and Vicki (Claudia Barrie) are besties from way back when at NIDA. Since then, each has taken a different path: Vicki inhabits the hard if artistically satisfying world of independent theatre, while Celia is a soapie star whose big money and celebrity make up for fatuous work.
Celia also has a man: scriptwriter Rohan (Jeremy Waters) whose last – and only – big hit is 15 years in the past. He’s scraping for ideas and relevance – something that’s brought into sharp focus when he pitches to uber producer Nate (Matt Minto). Rohan isn’t 23, has no street cred and Nate is brutal in dismissing him.
Nate’s in stark contrast to Celia’s longtime agent Nelli (Zoe Carides) who knows all about massaging tender egos in pursuit of a better deal. Her share of Celia’s soapie suds is more appealing than having Celia leave the series to rediscover her stage roots – after she’s goaded by Vicki into taking the bait of a role in a small movie
There’s no doubt every agent in the audience on opening night was itching to rush the stage and tell Celia not to be a twit. Just as many (some audibly!) thought “don’t do it!” when Rohan offhandedly agrees to use an idea from his old school mate Rollie (Ben Wood) and Rollie refuses a contract in favour of a handshake.
What happens to this bunch of 21st century Sydneysiders over the course of two acts is mainly credible, often funny and finally, surprisingly touching and a shock.
Mark Kilmurry directs with a light, sure hand on a simple set by Melanie Liertz that eschews fuss in favour of Nicholas Higgins’ lighting of two interchangeable locales. It means the focus throughout is on the actors and their intertwined fates.
Claudia Barrie is spectacularly horrid as the ambitious changeling who dangles a juicy career bait in front of her old friend; while Aileen Huynh’s wide-eyed acceptance of her own good fortune is equally awful – in a frustrating sort of way.
At the heart of The Big Time is a question: do we all have a price? And it’s followed by an answer: yes – how much? On the surface the characters are (mainly) likable – until the whiff of fame, power or money wafts beneath their noses. Subsequent acts of betrayal are not only plausible but squirmingly recognisable, even if we’ve only dumped an old friend in favour of a more glamorous invitation.
The unlikely heart of the play is boofy pal Rollie, whose gently blundering life failures are given a wretched, sad core by Ben Wood. Although he’s lost the most and had the least in the first place, Rollie is a reminder that there are choices to be made and success can be measured in more than one way.
Zoe Carides’ Nelli is also a throwback to a time before pure self interest. Nelli teeters on the tightrope of decency, with money at one end and ambition at the other, all the while trying to maintain a balancing act between Celia and Vicki’s competing interests. Then again, producer Nate and writer Rohan are more airily corruptible in their unthinking masculinity and thus excruciatingly believable.
The Big Time is a wry and unsentimental vision of the kinds of people the playwright has observed over the past five decades. They’re like most of us – except the stakes are higher and potentially more unpleasant. Laugh and then feel a little uneasy. Recommended.