MR BAILEY'S MINDER
MR BAILEY’S MINDER, Ensemble Theatre, 28 July-2 September 2023. Photography by Prudence Upton: above - John Gaden, Claudia Ware and Rachel Gordon; below - Ware, Gordon and Gaden; below again - Ware, Albert Mwangi, Gaden
Debra Oswald’s Mr Bailey’s Minder first opened for Griffin Theatre in 2004 and immediately began scooping up audiences (at the Stables and around the country) and awards. Twenty years on and it’s as potent as ever, possibly more so post-lockdown when, arguably, people are attuned to the nuances of human behaviour as never before.
Action is tightly contained in the picturesquely decrepit living room of a once-chic home overlooking Sydney Harbour (set and costume design Soham Apte). The house belongs to its now sole occupant, national living treasure and total bastard, artist Leo Bailey (John Gaden). He also is decrepit but unlike the building, his disintegration is actively self-inflicted rather than the outcome of simple neglect.
Margo (Rachel Gordon), one of his many children by various wives and the only one still talking to him, arrives to induct a new live-in carer. The young woman, Therese (Claudia Ware), is as desperately keen to take the job as Margo is desperate enough to overlook her obviously dodgy credentials.
Leo is convinced that Margo is intent on getting him out of the house and his fears explode into vitriolic rage. Although outwardly elegant and successful, Margo is actually a brittle mess of childhood hurt on towering stilettos, her father’s tirades (almost) paralyse her. He is terrifyingly nasty – as only a truth-telling drunk can be. They are his truths, of course, and the result of a lifetime of self-indulgence on the coat tails of extravagant talent. He has abused friends, wives, children and alcohol with equal vigour and is now alone with failing health and courage.
As human versions of the immovable object and the unstoppable force, Therese and Leo collide in a welter of empty tequila bottles, dirty dishes and washing. Yet Therese – out of prison on licence and frantic to keep it that way – is young enough to still be optimistic and to overlook the improbability of the task she’s set herself: to get Leo off the booze and back to humanity. And back to being the father she never had and he never was.
Into this mess comes Karl (Albert Mwangi) a handyman-builder whose willingness to fix things on Margo’s budget is matched by his sunny disposition and, before long, his attraction to Therese. Unfortunately, the budget is mean and so is Therese when it comes to acknowledging Karl’s feelings. She is unwilling to recognise an unlikely knight in hi-vis armour, and instead lavishes her time and care on the undeserving Leo.
In the skilful hands of director Damien Ryan the emotional conflicts, scarred histories and distinctly different start and end points of these characters make for an uncommonly rewarding two hours. Through the actors’ disciplined approach to high drama, and some gloriously relieving laughter, and with the tender contrast of sweet Karl to leaven the mix, Mr Bailey’s Minder is a beautifully constructed story that many in the audience will either recognise and shudder at, or be glad to have lived without “genius” or a plain old hopeless drunk.
As Leo, John Gaden is a magnetic presence, apparently effortless in portraying a man who would be easy to hate, in his calculated malevolence. And equally easy to see tip into the kind of charismatic sentimentality that would have us forgive him and blame his genius. But the writing and the performance don’t allow that. He is vile, yet the pathetic underbelly is also visible and make him understandably human. John Gaden at his very best.
As his minder, Claudia Ware is at once dynamic and touching, buoyant and vulnerable and a fine foil for the irascible artist. At the same time, Rachel Gordon’s cool, almost ruthless exterior only partially conceals the world of sadness beneath. And Albert Mwangi’s easy, intelligent charm suggests a career as spunky hero lies ahead.
Lighting designer Morgan Moroney and composer/sound designer Daryl Wallis also contribute telling elements from diffused sunlight through stained glass to evocative birdsong and thumping heavy metal.
Mr Bailey’s Minder and his laughter and tears make for one of the most popular Australian plays of this era and deservedly so. Recommended without reservation.