The Distance

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
The Distance play at Melbourne Theatre Company
Jeff Busby

This ‘big ideas’ show about doing the right thing by your kids comes tantalisingly close to living up to its potential

Even when the parents have the best intentions in mind, sometimes things just don’t work out exactly right. Pondering motherhood as a choice rather than an inherent obligation for women, The Distance by UK playwright Deborah Bruce, first performed in 2012, has a serious thunder under its wing – even if it isn’t fully formed in this particular outing at MTC. Like the most ordinary of childhoods, this production leaves you with that feeling of yearning for a little something extra that would raise it to an almost unforgettable experience.

Bea (Susan Prior) flees from her husband and two children in Australia for the comforting arms of old friends in England – Kate (Nadine Garner) and Alex (Katrina Milosevic). Only this is no simple divorce. She has no intention of going back to her family and doesn’t want custody of her kids. Bea has voluntarily opted out of motherhood; an undertaking that she feels she wasn’t right for. It’s a decision that pops many veins as old friendships take a punch to the gut.

The original playscript by Deborah Bruce is a complex examination of the role of the mother that tenderly approaches the conflict of abandonment versus free will with an even-weighted hand. The genuinely complicated dilemmas that crash upon the heads of every character in the play are played out in a bit of a hit-and-miss manner, though there are some tremendous moments of tension. This production could perhaps use more focus under Leticia Cáceres’s direction to let these buds burst out into the sun as full-grown children with proper parental issues. 

As the lead, Susan Prior at times appears forced and somewhat detached in her role, but is for the most part relatable and carries the burden of the themes well. Nadine Garner is solid as the very challenging traditionalist, though her performance is perhaps over-aggressive in the first act. Katrina Milosevic is beautifully flawed as the friend who kind of fails at a few things but is still great to have around, and she possesses pinpoint comedic timing. The single element of this play that seems to surpass all else is the female friendship at the fore.

Tracy Grant Lord’s design of the upscale British home is vast and cunningly detailed, though the upper level stage area is less functional than hoped. Her costumes are elegantly naturalistic – everything you need to know is right there. Lisa Mibus leads light with a delicate and subtle hand,  and sound design by The Sweats is generally effective. 

There is certainly something to be said for the fascinating and challenging ideas that The Distance posits, but like a child out of control in the schoolyard it isn’t quite meeting up to its potential. A general sense of wandering can sometimes have powerful effect, though the internal conflict of this reasonably sized ensemble seems to require a fairly considered and methodical delivery to have an impact for audiences. But then, perhaps the play is more aware of its theme than would first appear: when things aren’t working out, is it really okay to call it quits and run away?

By: John Back

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