As the audience files in for this world premiere, what they see on stage is a likely alternative to how they could spend the evening: four people are chatting and drinking rosé around a table in a domestic setting that says comfortable, educated, upper middle class. When the lights go down and the cast set to work in earnest, it’s soon confirmed that Joanna Murray-Smith knows her audience, as both the comedy and drama turn on First World problems.

Nothing shocking, then; indeed much of Three Little Words is predictable, but it is thought-provoking, with moments of humour and pathos that make up for its less successful aspects.

Melbourne Theatre Company Three Little WordsKate Atkinson, Katherine Tonkin and Catherine McClements in Melbourne Theatre Company’s Three Little Words. Photos © Jeff Busby

The people around the table are two pairs of long-term couples: Tess (Catherine McClements), who works in publishing, and her husband, Curtis (Peter Houghton), a teacher, is joined by gallery owner Bonnie (Katherine Tonkin) and her masseuse partner, Annie (Kate Atkinson). They have been friends for many years, so when Tess calmly announces that she and Curtis are splitting, despite still loving, respecting and desiring each other, Bonnie and Annie are stunned.

This opening scene successfully sets the narrative going for more than 100 uninterrupted minutes, but the comic approach is problematic as it’s neither realistic nor particularly funny (though many in the audience laughed loud and often, so perhaps it’s a matter of taste, or a taste for pre-theatre drinks). Tess speaks vaguely of the yearning for freedom and self-realisation that prompted her decision to end a 20-year marriage. Curtis echoes her words like a respectful, dutiful parrot. Bonnie, focused on how their symbiotic friendship will be ruined, refuses to accept the situation. Annie melodramatically supports her partner’s view.

Three Little Words Melbourne Theatre CompanyKate Atkinson, Katherine Tonkin, Peter Houghton

From this point, the play has to work hard to build credibility, especially as expectations are inevitably high for a playwright of such standing. Murray-Smith succeeds by dialling down the comedy, and fleshing out her characters in poignant, even dramatic moments that reveal what troubles them and drives them along. The power dynamics within the couples are particularly telling. Humour is never far away, however, and becomes more effective by being less scatter-gun. A highlight is when a code word set up between Bonnie and Annie finally gets its comic payoff.

Under director Sarah Goodes, the cast push through the script’s less substantial aspects, and deliver its better moments with conviction. Katherine Tonkin’s performance is perhaps the most likeable, because the evolution of her character, Bonnie, is the most subtle, so she’s less prone to histrionics.

Three Little Words Melbourne Theatre CompanyCatherine McClements, Katherine Tonkin

Just as his costumes underscore the characters’ personalities and occupations, Michael Hankin’s very functional single set neatly represents their milieu. Spinning it around on a revolving stage between scenes, hinting at the characters’ unstable mental states, is a nice touch, as is packing everything off to the sides for the finale, as a physical representation of breaking up.

Three Little Words is essentially predictable. The compliant person in each relationship discovers their inner fire, and slightly ditzy Annie turns out to be wise, too. Money is revealed as key to the dominant partners’ sense of superiority. The ostensibly open ending leaves little room for doubt. There’s a derogatory joke about Canberra. Yet it’s easy for the audience to see themselves and their friends in these characters, so it ultimately succeeds by engaging and provoking.

Three Little Words plays at Southbank Theatre, Melbourne until May 27