Review: Chronic

29 June 2018

The world is, at times, a terrifying place. Millennials are changing their names to WTC7. Seemingly middle-aged women are drinking coffees with 17 sugars at local cafés. People are ordering chicken parmigianas with extra cheese. To quote one character in Chronic (written by Milton, full name, directed by David Sweeney), there’s some “seriously weird” stuff going on. And while at times Chronic creatively and effortlessly brings the audience into its unique world, it just as often draws attention to itself, and finds itself off-kilter and distractingly alienating. Whether that was the intention, it’s difficult to say—but the result remains the same.

Chronic focuses—firstly, and there are many shifts to come—on Cliff Young (Zachary Kazepis), a student of constitutional law who quickly is befriended and then “seducationed” (that’s sex-educationed, as a portmanteau) by Meaghan (the very, very good Jane Elizabeth Barry). In short order, he falls for Meaghan, even as his sister, Ollie Young (Belinda Jenkin) and her friend, WTC7 (real name Bronwyn, played by Pia O’Meadhra) refuse to believe in her existence. Cliff can’t rest over the sudden disappearance of their parents, while an antagonistic Ollie and WTC7 mock Cliff for not “waking up” and realising that 9/11 was an inside job. Meanwhile, Cliff’s old high school history teacher, Maxine Brady (played by Sonia Marcon, who is immediately spot-on) has lapsed into an institutionalised paranoiac fever, while an old high school friend, Reaghan Nixon (a hilarious Nicola Darcy) waits tables at the local pub.

To say any more would reveal too much, but, from the outset, there’s a lot going on. Despite the at-times chaotic breadth of the subject material being handled, the performances ably capture the wide range of what’s going on. Of particular note is Barry, who has a singular energy every moment she’s on the stage, and the pair of Nixon and Alistair Ward (playing cricket fan Johnny Reptile), who both have a keen sense of comedic timing and performance that elevate the material significantly. However, this is not to ignore the other actors on stage—each draws their character (or characters, in the case of Kieran Rodriguez’s multi-part role) with specificity and a believable quality. There is clear talent on the stage, and it heightens Chronic’s impact across the board.

However, a rising tide can only lift boats so high. At times, Chronic feels as if it were two shows crammed into one night. The first half, broadly speaking, lacks a dramatic energy and focus stemming both from its material concerns and the way in which they’re performed. Conspiracy can be both wildly funny and serious, but at times, the references—to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, to the flat-earth theory, and to a wild variety of other less- and more-conspiratorial materials—fail to land. Part of this, perhaps, is due to the script. Milton takes a wide variety of inspiration in his dialogue, and, while entertaining at times, it can sometimes feel overwritten and awkward in the moment. However, the direction of Chronic in this first half also feels lacking. At times, set-pieces feel overly theatrical without a clear purpose, and the action on stage feels more performed for the audience’s sake, rather than for bringing the script to life. Chronic speaks of discovering the truth, but much of the time, it fails to find that truth in its own performance. The focus on a serious, romantic drama in the first half, while potentially thrilling in a different context, also feels misapplied here; the material and tone never quite mesh, and at times the viewer can feel alienated from the world on stage, without the attendant benefits of the Brechtian, epic viewpoint.

Curiously, however, this is not a constant. Beginning with a well-telegraphed revelation at the show’s midpoint (the script is, to its credit, packed with plot) and the introduction of Ward, the show becomes much more enjoyable and active, with fight sequences, dance numbers and an air of irreverence that feels much more like what Milton and Sweeney set out to achieve. Nothing is perfect—and perhaps in a show like this, perfect is not the goal—but it is deeply satisfying to watch these later scenes play out. That irreverence does not last forever—and when it disappears, the problems and frustrations of earlier scenes return—but it is a sign that there’s something eminently workable here. A five-minute monologue about Paul McCartney should not be entertaining, but it is just one fun moment in a second half that continues to deliver them.

Ultimately, however, Chronic doesn’t shine reliably, and certainly not constantly. Trying to ascribe to Chronic a takeaway message, or purpose, is more difficult than it perhaps should be—it certainly tries to impart some meaning, but doesn’t quite suggest what would come after. Scenes such as a lengthy description of General Ripper (of Dr. Strangelove) and endless discussions of why 9/11, indeed, was an inside job are somewhat interesting (mostly because of the actors performing them), but their intent feels vacuous, and the play could have easily done without while maintaining its apparent intent. This, perhaps, is one reason why the two halves feel so different. This lack of focus is much more prevalent in the first half, as Milton winds up his text in preparation for the second half’s delivery, and while the second half certainly does deliver, it takes a while to get there. Milton and Sweeney try to deliver a cornucopia of ideas, and in doing so, they weigh down every one.

This is not to say that Chronic is a bad show. It is enjoyable, and there are terrific performances across the board. However, Chronic cannot be described as consistent, or perfect, or great. It achieves some of what it sets out to be—“wordy and witty, relevant and irreverent”, according to Sweeney’s program note—admirably. But, it equally fails to find its own two feet, and never quite fully recovers. It is a curiosity, and certainly a unique show in both content and tone—but it labours under that curiosity, and confuses unique for remarkable.

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