Review: Sweet Phoebe

12 February 2019

Contemporary classic Sweet Phoebe has been reimagined for Red Stitch Theatre under the direction of Mark Wilson, a quarter century after it premiered in Sydney starring a young Cate Blanchett. In this stark, intimate space, tightly wound couple Helen (Olivia Monticciolo) and Fraser (Marcus McKenzie) rove around their desperately upper-middle-class domain, eager to quash the insecurities plaguing them as they barrel towards mutually assured success.

“We’re better together,” they repeat, having isolated themselves. “Remember the mess we were in, before we learnt to take control?” But their vacuum-sealed world is compromised when they reluctantly agree to mind a dog, Phoebe. After capturing their hearts, Phoebe runs away and Helen and Fraser venture into Sydney’s suburbs in search of her–encountering experiences which transform their relationship with themselves and each other.

Written by esteemed Australian playwright Michael Gow, Sweet Phoebe received the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Best New Play 1995 but has had limited reproductions since. As a writer and director, Gow has a knack for dissecting intimate family dynamics and modern Australian attitudes with dark, perceptive wit. Sweet Phoebe is driven by Gow’s rich dialogue, delivered by Monticciolo and McKenzie in short, sharp bursts. They are swinging pendulums of manic energy, rebounding off each other and returning dishevelled.

With eerie, inconspicuous sound design (Daniel Nixon) and a stripped-back set (Laura Jean Hawkins)–all black marbled surfaces and neon red accents–the space feels like a simmering volcanic core. In this austere space, Sweet Phoebe becomes a microcosm of 90s existentialism, modern relationships and Australian class relations. On the latter front, it shows its age somewhat, but in the end, it is pointing the finger at itself.

Monticciolo and McKenzie are versatile, sliding from subtle humour into wacky, intense tragedy and back again. Sometimes they pivot too quickly–metaphor and reality converge, information gets lost in a wordy script, and Fraser’s incongruous character development can leave you retracing your steps. There are times, too, which feel unnecessarily awkward for such an intimate theatre.

Most of the time, though, the production weaves its many threads together self-assuredly, anchored by Phoebe, its invisible agent of destruction. There are some genuinely chilling moments as Helen becomes a husk of her former self, portrayed sensitively by Monticciolo; her believability counteracts the brusquer elements of the production. Sweet Phoebe is an odd gem with a talented cast and tight production–it will give you something to chew on.

 Sweet Phoebe is playing at Red Stitch until March 3rd.

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