Review of Things I Know to be True at the Lyric Hammersmith
It's not very often that you see a piece of theatre that resonates so soundly with a specific period of your life that it feels both difficult and cathartic to watch. As one of three siblings tottering over the milestone age of 30 I could relate wholeheartedly with so many aspects of Bovell's play that it felt strangely familiar yet constantly surprising. Whilst the sweeping mini-narratives each of the Price family bring to their domestic table may not necessarily parallel my own life, the overriding theme certainly did and managed to effectively show a family re-addressing the balance as the bonds between them are forced to change with the times.
Jokes about their father not being able to work the new coffee machine and the youngest sibling still bringing his laundry home for his mum to wash struck a particular recognisable chord, creating a familial foundation from which the drama develops. Anyone who is part of a family of any size will recognise many of these traits, and that's where Bovell's play excels; in portraying the ordinary alongside extraordinary challenges.
Youngest daughter Rosie Price returns from her adventure travelling the world somewhat prematurely, afraid of missing life in urban Australia which on the surface seems far from exceptional. Her apathy towards the wider world and her love of her family provides an almost innocent set of eyes for us to see each of her family members through, and as the domestic drama unfolds she begins to question her own place within it. Parents Bob and Fran have devoted their lives to building a home, patching over any issues in their marriage and unhappiness with their chosen careers by investing that time into their large family. Now facing the age of retirement, and in Bob's case redundancy, their sense of responsibility towards their children has never felt greater.
Its structure is somewhat formulaic, and once you see Bovell's conceit repeat for a second time as he explores the tensions each sibling brings to their parents you're able to plot out the rest of the journey and the returns suitably diminish as time goes on. Rather than necessarily doing a disservice to the drama this helps heighten the tension and leads it further towards the conventions of a classic tragedy. The stakes are continuously raised, sometimes in a non-natural way that becomes a little too far-fetched for one family. At times it's enough to even keep the most put-upon parent in Soap Gail Platt awake at night.
What does work however is the different bonds between the characters and they way each are treated – double standards and favouritism peppers each of the reactions, and whilst on paper they preach about treating each of their children the same, at least financially, the interest becomes their tolerance and varied expectations of each of their four children.
For all the shouting and the histrionics, and there's a lot of them, I found the tender moments the most powerful. Scenes between Imogen Stubbs' maternally aggressive Fran and Ewan Stewart's calmer and more measured Bob were the most impressive -- what parent hasn't wondered what to do with their life once their children have grown up and what child hasn't equally tried to imagine their parents reforming life as a couple and worrying about them post-parenthood? As it happens, Bovell seems to suggest that no matter how old the child they continue to be attached, and family responsibility never goes away.
As a co-direction between the State Theatre Company of Australia's Geordie Brookman and Frantic Assembly's Scott Graham the piece is a fusion between two contradicting styles, yet both come together to present a suitably fluid and strikingly powerful drama. Graham's skill at building heightened movement seamlessly into the text provides a beautiful visual world that's balletic and soft in its discovery, almost at direct odds with the sharpness of Bovell's text. Somehow the movement captures the pathos needed to keep the audience firmly on its side, and matched with a pleasing design by Geoff Cobham it becomes a joy to watch.
Presented in a mix of accents the cast pull together to create moments of fiery tension mixed with dutiful and unconditional warmth that stops the piece from feeling too distant. Stubbs anchors most of the arguments and offers a complex portrayal of a mother pulled in multiple directions, struggling to keep all her balls in the air. She's finely matched by an impressive ensemble including a suitably bitter Natalie Casey and a well-judged conflicted Matthew Barker.
For a play that oscillates between the humdrum and the exceptional there's enough meat in both the characters and text to allow for an accurate and powerful discovery of a family in crisis. Whilst at times it can feel overstuffed, the subtle nature of the production and its kinetic appeal make for an impressive and gripping domestic drama that resonates deeply.