An all new touring production of provocative 2013 MTC hit The Beast wraps shocking behaviour in laugh out loud comedy.
A commercial transfer of an original play that began its life in the subsidised theatre sector is a commonplace occurrence in the West End, but is all too rare in Australia. While this a completely new production rather a direct transfer, it may very well be no coincidence that The Beast is one of three recent examples all helmed by the same director. Simon Phillips’ inventive staging of North by Northwest transferred earlier this year, and warmly nostalgic new musical Ladies in Black will tour early next year.
Written by Eddie Perfect, The Beast is a smart contemporary comedy that is set apart by the central rather gruesome scene involving the titular Beast. Bonded by a trauma the husbands survived, three couples enjoy a semi-rural tree change before they take the back-to-basics angle too far and spontaneously decide to kill their own dinner. The outrageous impact of the blood-splattered slaughter scene is as viscerally shocking as many of the did-they-really-just-say-that clangers of the boundary-pushing, decidedly non-PC script.
Perfect creates six distinct, involving characters whose recognisable quirks and foibles shine through even as the comedy becomes more outlandish. Intriguing hints are dropped about the outcome of the ill-fated boat trip seen in the prologue, before the truth, and a host of other secrets, comes out in the final scene. The weight of a couple of the shocks is reduced due to the sheer number of revelations and the comic tone, but the final outpouring of the complete litany of sins is very satisfying to watch.
The blackness of Perfect’s comedy is deepened by his embrace of unlikeable character traits. Simon (Rohan Nichol) is a particularly unsavoury creep, conceitedly confident in his obnoxious, boorish manner. He is the exactly type to have married a trophy wife with no thought of her personality only to socially suffocate her into needing therapy and pills. We all like to see a bully receive their comeuppance, and Simon is satisfyingly taken down a peg or three.
Each of the characters has their prejudices and their weaknesses, and the combination of Perfect’s brisk writing style and Phillips’ broad, confident direction sets these up quickly and clearly. After the climactic action at the end of act one, the pace flags a little through act two, especially in in the extended sequence about wine, but the intensity of the finale regains momentum.
The characters pay a great deal of lip service to the embrace of their new lifestyles, a point Dale Ferguson highlights with the sleek modern minimalist interior designs of the country properties. Painting the verdant outlooks on ruched curtains is a clever touch, giving a richer, more ambient look than flat painted backdrops would have achieved. Ferguson’s costumes also include the kind of impractical, urban outfits that are hard for former city dwellers to shed.
The design of the calf puppet is extraordinary, both for its lifelike personality while feeding and for its capacity to violently expel bodily fluids while being slaughtered.
Nichol is unafraid to portray the blatantly obnoxious aspects of Simon, creating a character of arrogant bravado who simply believes his actions are right. Scoring many a laugh with her deliciously plummy tones, Christie Whelan Browne projects the fragile self-esteem of a beautiful woman who has been made to feel unworthy.
Alison Bell brings a brooding, often inscrutable energy to Marge, a proud woman damaged by recent life choices and frustrated by the manifestation of her husband’s PTSD. Perfect hides Baird’s scars under his direct manner and gravelly voice, gently gaining sympathy whenever the character’s less than privileged upbringing is mentioned.
Toby Truslove conveys Rob’s internal anxiety with a slightly high-pitched voice and subtly nervous manner. Heidi Arena veers toward overplaying the comedy, often setting a manic energy level for warmhearted, if highly judgmental, Sue.
Peter Houghton deftly plays four characters, achieving an impressive on-stage change back and forth in the climactic flashback to the life-changing fishing trip.
Given the frequent domination of family entertainment at the theatre, The Beast is a uniquely adults only treat.
The Beast plays at Comedy Theatre, Melbourne until 10 September 2016
Photos: Ken Nakanishi