This review is based on the second performance of The Sum of Us at 7:30pm on Saturday, February 2nd, 2019 at The Royal Exchange, Newcastle. Featured photo above shamelessly stolen from The Newcastle Herald’s website.
Bare Productions has made its inaugural trip due East to Newcastle this summer to present an Australian classic for Novocastrian audiences, David Stevens’ The Sum of Us, a touching comedy-drama about the quest for love and the various manifestations of man’s folly. This production makes considerate strides to foreground the themes of unconditional love for oneself and for one’s family, with director Annette Rowlison finding a delightful balance between the comedic and the tragic in the text.
The Sum of Us originally could not find a platform in Australia for its maiden voyage, instead changing trajectory and playing off-Broadway. This production was crowned the most Oustanding Off-Broadway Play at the 41st Annual Outer Critics Circle Awards in 1991, and it went on to enjoy a staging in 1992 with the Sydney Theatre Company, and then a film adaptation with none other than up-and-comer Russell Crowe.
The piece follows the relationship of Harry, played by Alan Glover, and his son Jeff, played by Roderick Sinnamon. They frequently irritate each other, but their love is pure and true, and Harry has absolutely no qualms with his son’s sexuality, only wishing that his progeny may find true happiness in this world and not be limited whatsoever by whatever trappings come with his sexuality. Harry himself seeks love, and commences a relationship with a conservative divorcée by the name of Joyce, played by Robyn Blackwell.
Will Joyce accept Jeff for who he is? Will Jeff’s new beau Greg (played by Benjamin Louttit) be able to overcome his anxieties about not being out to his family and open himself up to a good thing? Will Harry get his damn nose out of Jeff’s business?
Glover’s Harry is an instantly recognisable character. Equal parts no-nonsense and larrikin, he knows what he likes, and evokes a quintessentially old battler style of Australian humour with which every single audience member can identify. His intentions are unfailingly good; he is not invasive, and accepts the responsibility of loving one’s child unconditionally without a second thought. Glover is infectious and affable in this role, almost to the point that I forgot he was a fictional character in a play, as Harry is just the summation of every Australian man over a certain age, and the product of smart and specific writing. Suffice it to say, when he suffers a stroke in the second act and cries in his wheelchair, so too does the audience.
As Jeff, Sinnamon is sensitive yet stoic, and his inner conflict of being a product of a heteronormative upbringing and wanting his sexuality not to become an attribute that consumes his life is thoroughly believable. He is just a man who likes men, and would like for a man to like him for more than sex. When paired with Louttit’s Greg, we see Jeff’s sensitivities manifest beautifully with stolen glances and warm smiles, and when Greg cannot bring himself to allow himself to be happy, we see a man at odds with circumstances that he knows they are both stronger than.
Their scene in the first act charts such a heartbreaking trajectory, as Harry welcomes Jeff’s special friend with open arms and liquor cabinet, and Greg feels comfortable enough to lose himself in the moment. Louttit assumes a naturalistic air, not unlike the way that Gyton Grantley shifts and chuckles, and instantly makes us warm to Greg. This scene is one of the superior of the text in terms of the writing, featuring some of the best jokes of the entire show, and these three actors milk the material to its fullest potential.
The second act sees the long-awaited entrance of Joyce, who has only been alluded to in the course of the first act. Glover and Blackwell make a handsome pair, infusing the characters’ somewhat aggressively on-the-nose dialogue about their sexual intentions with each other with a sense of realism that almost excuses the directness. Of all the cast, Glover and Blackwell perhaps handle the quirky linguistic habits of their respective characters the best. Stevens carves out a distinctive voice for each of the four characters, with Harry and Jeff speaking in the most densely ocker idiolects.
Glover and Sinnamon are also tasked with a few occasions in which Harry and Jeff break the fourth wall and reflect on things that have happened in their lives with an applicable moral to their present situation. These all seem to pay off, despite the risk of the device, and Harry’s speech about the nature of parenthood and the culmination of one’s entire family history into a person’s “seed” was particularly powerful, and not just because it held the entire moral of the play.
The scenes were punctuated by an eclectic original score by Victor Spiegel, which combined a variety of genres and styles, melding the electronic with the more traditional in a satisfying way. The music epitomised the generational clashes of the content of the story very well, with the 70s décor serving as a battleground for Harry and Jeff’s battle against the problems of modernity. The set was simple and eminently homely, and the cosy armchairs and sofas permeating the audience space of The Royal Exchange definitely assisted in evoking the feeling of a real sitting room.
This production was highly enjoyable, and it was truly wonderful to see such skilled out-of-towners like these deeming this town worthy of this kind of touring. This is a play with simultaneously specific and universal themes and experiences to resonate with all kinds of people, so catch this production while you can.
The Sum of Us has four more performances left, running until Saturday, February 9th, at The Royal Exchange on Bolton Street in Newcastle, with a performance today at 5pm. Tickets are $25.00 for general admission, and $22.50 for concession and groups of 10, and are available here, with programs available for a gold coin donation.
Stay up to date with Bare Productions through their Facebook page, from which all the photos in the body of the review were gleaned, here.