Sumner Theatre, Melbourne
November 23, 2017
Even before the play seemed to have begun, as an amplified voice in the darkness acknowledged the traditional owners of the land, it became clear that we were in for a bumpy night of comedy. The voice grew sarcastic, playing with the perhaps universally white, middle-class audience’s guilt about Indigenous Australians and refugees. After this murder in the dark of liberal smugness, Eddie Perfect’s new play for the Melbourne Theatre Company proceeded to steamroll over the audience’s very probable preoccupation with home ownership.
Virginia Gay, Christina O’Neill, Ben Mingay and Keegan Joyce in Melbourne Theatre Company’s Vivid White. Photos © Jeff Busby
Unashamedly set in Melbourne, with references to suburbs whose level of residential desirability only locals could appreciate, Vivid White centres on two couples who want to buy the same house. A rift develops between these long-time friends, making their values – in both senses of the word – clear. TV light entertainer Evan and his producer-wife Cynthia are cashed up, while Liz and Ben are struggling to make a living from their fringe satirical band, which Evan moved on from years ago.
The absurdities of an overheated real-estate market and interior design trends are mocked in increasingly unexpected ways. Society degenerates into a world of elite home owners and refugee-like renters, a situation seemingly advanced by a mysterious, beguiling voice and giant tentacles glimpsed in acts of violence.
Sung and played by the multi-talented cast, Perfect’s original satirical songs are scattered throughout. Some are hilariously on the money lyrically: realising one doesn’t like the rescue dog, for example, or how soft-closing drawers are a sign of personal success.
Ben Mingay and Keegan Joyce in Melbourne Theatre Company’s Vivid White.
Some of his satirical jabs, both in song and dialogue, are a little obvious and, as with all comedy, sometimes it’s horses for courses. Is Perfect’s self-referential humour about a satirist becoming a light entertainer witty or indulgent? The plot’s increasing absurdism also kept the audience guessing, perhaps never comfortable enough to know for sure whether a joke was flat or over their heads. Undoubtedly, however, Vivid White has enough wicked laughs to keep things rolling along in more-please fashion.
Directed by Dean Bryant, the principal cast of seven were uniformly good, including as capable, even outstanding, singers and musicians. Virginia Gay, so goofy earlier this year in MTC’s Minnie and Liraz, was the standout. Fearlessly funny in the small role of a ruthless real-estate agent, she turned it on as that voice in the darkness, soon revealed as the mysterious force driving people to buy houses they can’t afford and renovate them beyond reason or recognition.
Brent Hill, Gillian Cosgriff, Virginia gay, Keegan Joyce and Ben Mingay in Melbourne Theatre Company’s Vivid White.
Verity Hunt-Ballard kept Liz’s hankering for domestic bliss just the right side of sanity and, unsurprisingly for Australia’s original Mary Poppins of the stage, sang confidently. Brent Hill’s Ben was a nice mix of self-righteousness and earnest loser, Ben Mingay’s Evan revealed the doubt beneath that light entertainer’s confidence, and Christina O’Neill brought some brittleness to Cynthia’s glamour and determination. Keegan Joyce made the most of two small roles, particularly a slick young estate agent with youthful vulnerability, as did Gillian Cosgriff in three roles; her interior designer was a hoot.
They are constantly kept busy, often doubling up as live musicians on low stages that slide in and out from the wings. The sense of a busy, well-organised cast is enhanced by an ensemble of Victorian College of the Arts music theatre students’ occasional non-speaking appearances. Some adeptly manipulated model houses and puppets, from an anxious rescue dog to the finale’s big surprise.
Christina O’Neill, Brent Hill, Ben Mingay and Verity Hunt-Ballard in Melbourne Theatre Company’s Vivid White.
They also assisted with quick on-stage adjustments to Tim Chappel’s adaptable costumes, which are required by the plot’s fast pace – including a ridiculously retro flashback to the band’s 2006 implosion, in which pastel parachute-silk leisure wear looks more 1986. Owen Phillips’ sets also come and go at speed, despite being substantial interiors such as a kitchen full of wooden cabinetry, an office, and the final act’s all-white wonder of contemporary domestic design, complete with soft-closing drawers that are enthusiastically demonstrated.
Vivid White is an unpredictable, often caustically funny poke at its audience. White, middle-class smugness is best left at the door.
Melbourne Theatre’s Company’s Vivid White is at the Sumner Theatre, Melbourne, until December 23.