Anna Robi & The House Of Dogs
By Maxine Mellor. Directed by David McVicar. Gobsmacked Theatre Company. The Studio @ Holden Street Theatres, Adelaide. February 23-March 8, 2015
Those in the mood to see something grotesque and shocking at this year’s Fringe Festival will certainly get their money’s worth from this extravagantly vulgar play.
Anna (Hannah Nicholson) is a mousy office worker in her late teens whose life has become consumed with caring for her foul-mouthed, misanthropic, agoraphobic, hypochondriac, slothful hoarder of a mother (Emily Branford). In order to cope with the extreme emotional abuse dished out to her daily, Anna creates an elaborate fantasy life in which she imagines an idealised “knight in shining armour” will come to her rescue and they will live happily ever after in a state of wedded bliss. Unfortunately, the only other human connection Anna manages to establish is phone-sex with Roger (Phil Harker-Smith), a pervert whose number she discovered through a newspaper ad.
Maxine Mellor’s script is an example of black comedy that crosses the line twice, she piles on the tragic psychological trauma and grotesque indecency (including masturbation, defecation and doggy-sex) so thick that one’s gut instinct is to laugh hysterically at the cartoonish extremity of it all.
The snappy, spitfire chemistry between Nicholson and Branford enhances the script’s unhinged intensity. Branford never attempts to humanise this caricature of an overbearing mother, hamming it up to monstrous levels of pure evil. Nicholson, in an effective contrast, plays every scene, no matter how ludicrously absurd, with fiercely determined earnestness and sincerity. Harker-Smith offers solid support as both the idealised macho hero of Anna’s fantasies, and the nerdy creep she encounters in the real world.
McVicar’s set design is simple but vividly illustrates the squalid filth of Anna’s existence and Simon Ritchie’s lighting and sound design (especially his incorporation of several Doris Day songs into the soundtrack) effectively distinguish the fantasy and real-world sections of the play.
This is not a show for the squeamish, and there are many who I’m sure will be offended by the very idea of treating this situation (loaded with abuse and mental health issues) as a source of comedy. Still, The Fringe season is a time when many people want to be confronted, and this deliberately provocative and sensationalistic play has been brought to the stage with a great deal of flair by Gobsmacked Theatre Company. Adventurous theatregoers looking to be challenged should definitely check it out.
ANNA ROBI AND THE HOUSE OF DOGS
It’s not easy to find love. Harder still when you happen to share a bed with your chain-smoking, dog-breeding, catalog-obsessed mother. But Anna is determined to try.
This dark, surreal little play is set mostly in Anna and her mother’s claustrophobic and evocatively filthy bedroom, with the titular dogs represented by a series of puppets that range from rather sweet to pure nightmare fuel. It’s definitely not a show for the squeamish. The script, by Australian playwright Maxine Mellor, is fast, funny, and extremely filthy. Do not bring children. I repeat: do not bring children.
The action moves from dream sequence to squalid reality, and the lines of fantasy are quite deliberately blurred. It would have been easy for this play to completely lose touch with reality and break down into irretrievable absurdity. But the excellent cast expertly tread the fine line between the ridiculous and the real – there are certainly farcical elements here, but we always keep one foot grounded in the real. Anna’s heartfelt desire for independence and freedom, warped as it is by her peculiar upbringing, rings true, and that simple, truthful core sustains the audience’s emotional investment through all kinds of chaos.
A filthy, bizarre, very funny, very dark piece of theatre. Get along to Holden Street Theatres – there’s so much more to the Fringe than what you’ll find in the CBD. 4 1/2 Stars