BLESSED UNION, Belvoir St Theatre, and Sydney WorldPride 2023, 11 February-11 March 2023. Photography by Brett Boardman; above - Jasper Lee-Lindsay and Emma Diaz; below - Maude Davey, Lee-Lindsay, Diaz, and Danielle Cormack
Playwright Maeve Marsden has sharp and wickedly funny eyes and ears for the humorous aspects of family life. Crucially, however, those ears and eyes are also humane, so what happens when Ruth and Judith set out to tell their teenage children they’re splitting up is hilarious and heartrending by turn.
Blessed Union is, in almost every way, so “normal” as to make your teeth ache: a classically constructed two-act play set in a nicely-appointed, middle-class kitchen-diner-family room in the Inner West (designer Isabel Hudson). Also earnestly normal – for middle-class lesbians of a certain age – is that Ruth (Danielle Cormack) is a trade union organiser, while Judith (Maude Davey) her wife of many years, is a school teacher.
They have been immersed in the serious-minded world of acronym- and jargon-heavy, whiteboard public service for decades and it becomes apparent – with the unveiling of a colourful flowchart for separation – that home life has been conducted in much the same way. While they strive to avoid the heteronormative patriarchal paradigm in which they exist (yes, they do talk like that), they have in fact created a new normal which is just as, um, normal. And even more repressed and boring. That the kids see this but they don’t is part of the acid-dipped comedy. And also painful in the extreme.
The elder child, Delilah (Emma Diaz), is an ambitious law student. Her brother Asher (Jasper Lee-Lindsay) is a reluctant pupil at a Catholic high school, from which he is gleefully suspended after fulfilling an unholy dare in chapel. They are the carefully considered progeny of the women plus a male friend and are as intelligently sane as might be expected of such origins.
Along the way, there are gorgeous domestic set pieces. A pasta-making session involving dough, rolling pin, and pasta machine, is a master class in technical comedy and class politics. I mean really, who makes pasta at home either at all or so successfully? Book-ending this enterprise, as an indice of recovery from petit bourgeois heartbreak, is another brilliantly-executed scene in which Judith and the kids make Bloody Marys while she relates the history of the drink. There is more exquisitely timed comedy involving a blender. Director Hannah Goodwin and her company have achieved the balance of comedy and pathos, while also anchoring the quartet in the palpable depths of a long and secure familial setting.
To begin, however, the prudently announced marital separation – complete with stick-on gold stars for goals achieved, yay us – sets the tone of laughter and poignancy. Not surprisingly, after the initial shock, Del and Ash handle it better than their parents – who will now call each other Comrade to differentiate from in-a-relationship endearments.
What else happens over the course of two hours, 10 minutes with an interval is a portrait of family life and love that is rich as well as funny. Rather too many story strands are introduced that should be explored in depth in another setting, such as the kids’ biracial status in a predominantly white milieu, but too much ambition is better than too little. In the play, as it stands, Cormack’s Ruth is the trickiest road to travel as she is revealed as bossy and transactional as a successful unionist needs to be. On the other hand, Davey’s Judith has spent so many years dealing with small brats she’s become a dab hand at passive aggression. Both are believable even when making you wince.
Truculent yet charming Asher is fully realised by Lee-Lindsay although why he is allowed to get away with putting his feet up on the dining table is a mystery. Similarly, Diaz’s Delilah is a three-dimensional and credible presence as she bridges the two generations as well as handling her smart-arse lawyer schtick.
On the production side, Amelia Lever-Davidson’s lighting not only brings to life the comfortable home but smooths transitions between time and scene with unobtrusive definition. Alyx Dennison’s soundscape – mainly of abstract percussive effects – is unusual and effective. Altogether the creative team and actors achieve a high polish and command of their material rarely seen in Sydney. It’s plant-based comedy with added bacon and drama and is recommended without reservation.