Theatre Review: The Only Child, Herald Theatre

By Janet McAllister

Scenes from 'The Only Child'. Photo / Andrew Malmo
Scenes from 'The Only Child'. Photo / Andrew Malmo

This Silo Theatre production is a spectacle - loads of nudity, swearing, well-paced arguments, satisfyingly angry monologues, messy prop-throwing, and water spillage (beware the front row). There's never a dull moment in this contemporary Australian riff on Henrik Ibsen's little known Little Eyolf - the writers use all the tricks (arguably unnecessarily) to prove that 19th-century relationship dramas aren't boring.

Yet in spite of all this visceral, vaudeville entertainment, The Only Child is conventional and old-fashioned at heart: Daddy feels bad because he was too busy working to spend time with his boy. This is the start of many a Disney family movie - but this time, the guilt comes too late: the son is suddenly lost.

However, the mother (a fantastic, fiery Josephine Davison) seems less concerned with her lost son than she is with her distant husband. Who the "only child" really is becomes moot.

The father, Alfred (reliably excellent, mercurial Stephen Lovatt), takes to his bath in a very glossy, large and empty bathroom, literally wallowing in a puddle of self-pity. By the end, the bath has become his psychiatry couch, and the walls (thanks to set designer Simon Coleman) have become ghostly fun mirrors, their reflections grotesquely distorting the bodies onstage.

Sensationalism rather than sympathy seems to be the goal. Large amounts of light relief (thanks to brazen, believable Sam Snedden's foot-in-mouth character) undercut tense situations and, surprisingly, the structure of the play is that of a classical comedy.

In one scene, Alfred's sister (Claire Chitham) helps him to dress. The eagerness to shock means that what would be an incredibly moving portrayal of sibling love in the face of incapacitating shock and grief is sacrificed for the suggestion of potential incest.

The characters are fascinatingly awful. The play is not asking "what happens when bad things happen to ordinary people?" Instead it asks: "are the selfish better equipped to deal with tragedy, as they don't have to think of anyone but themselves?" It's not particularly insightful but it's entertaining. Mission accomplished.

The Only Child is on at the Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre, Until September 17.

- NZ Herald

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