>freak sons and daughters by the necessary stage

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 20 mar 2001
>time: 3pm
>venue: the drama centre
>rating: ****

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


Sometimes from the first line - dammit from the first tableau - you can tell whether something's going to work or not. And FREAK SONS' opening shot of a naked and distinctly feminine back showed such an understanding of its hormonally active audience's needs that you knew it could never go too far wrong. This image segued into a laugh-out-loud monologue from Christina Sergeant involving bra padding, Siamese twins and the tribulations of motherhood, which made for a strong opening and served to introduce the characters without immediately stereotyping them. Writer-director Natalie Hennedige obviously has a way with monologues, using them to draw the audience into her world, and it's almost a shame that there weren't more in the play; but then the start of the second act was equally attention-grabbing without one, so I daresay I quibble.

The cosmetically enhanced Sergeant stood out in more ways than two, portraying an appearance-obsessed mother with all the poise and mother-hen-fussiness that such a role implies. Serena Ho showed her claws as her "septic bitch" daughter, Mira, while hinting at a sensitive side; and across the garden fence, Mohan Sachdev convinced as a bitter and blind old man worshipping the evil god in his cupboard. Paul Falzon as the chicken-dependent (Peanuts monickered?) Linus attacked his part with the right amount of oomph and took it in broadly the right direction - that of an endearingly ineffectual Energizer bunny - but this was the character to which Hennedige had entrusted her funniest lines and her most abrupt reversals of pace and mood, and Falzon just didn't have the expressive range or the comic timing to pull it all off. Not that he was bad or wholly unfunny, but - for example - his chicken dance, which should have brought the house down, left all masonry firmly intact. Generally, however, the cast dealt with the script's mood swings admirably, playing the comedy big enough and the pathos small enough to keep the truth of both.

>>'The kids in the audience lapped it up.'

Now, when you mix two genres as intimately as FREAK SONS did, of course you can't hope to include the extremes of either: the result would be uncomfortably schizophrenic. So I'm sorry, vicar, you'll have to put your trousers back on, 'cause this ain't quite the farce you were looking for; and all you serious thesps out there who rate a play by the amount of emotiollectual baggage that it checks in at departure are in for a disappointment too. But where such plays as this hit you is in their movement, in their subversion and fulfilment of expectations, and in the timing of the contrasts they produce. Hennedige clearly understood this process and produced a fine tragicomedy or, considering its non-classical approach, let's label it with that very modern word: dramedy. And if you disagree, you can speak to Ms McBeal, my lawyer.

The lighting was wonderful, with Suven Chan's design using broad strokes to paint the set in psychotropic Technicolor, and yet retaining enough precision enough to pick out individual photos on the wall with striking fluorescence and poignancy.

And the set itself was a lesson in balance and versatility. Chan Man Loon had made subtle and effective use of angles, shapes and colours so that despite portraying two separate houses, the stage never looked lop-sided. He also managed to create space where there wasn't any, and to put realism and exaggeration through the blender, coming up with a smoothie perfectly suited to the action of the play.

Working with such pros, it must have been an easy task for Hennedige to manoeuvre her actors and convince us that there were walls where walls were not; but even then, showing three discrete locations at the same time on a stage that size is a harder task than it was made to look.

After all this, though, the ending of the play was both too predictable and too unbelievable: no matter how much it had been telegraphed, bitch queen Mira would never stoop to the level of Linus - at least, not so quickly. Plot-wise, it may have tidied things up, but character-wise, it came across as something of a convenient betrayal. However, the kids in the audience lapped it up; and since FREAK SONS was part of the M1 Youth Connection Festival (a fact you could easily divine from the huge guffaws every time an ass joke came along) I suppose that's what mattered. And considering that there were plenty of wittier lines for those who had ceased to find their asses funny, the play served as pretty decent adult entertainment, too.