Three Little Words

Theatre, Drama
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Three Little Words
Photograph: Jeff Busby
Kate Atkinson, Katherine Tonkin and Catherine McClements

After the success of Switzerland, playwright Joanna Murray-Smith and directorSarah Goodes re-team for an acerbic comedy about relationships

The program notes of Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play cite Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as antecedents, but this is largely a case of wishful thinking. Three Little Words has more in common with Yasmina Reza’s Life x 3, a contemporary comedy that also revolved around the concept of possibilities untapped, of lives not lived. Murray-Smith is thankfully a warmer and less showy playwright than her French counterpart, but her ambitions here are similar; she wants to gently prod at the dissatisfactions and aspirations of the middle class rather than smash them to pieces.

The play opens on the twentieth anniversary of Tess (Catherine McClements) and Curtis’ (Peter Houghton) marriage. They’re celebrating it with their best friends, couple Bonnie (Katherine Tonkin) and Annie (Kate Atkinson), but throw a spanner in the works when they announce they’re splitting. It initially looks like an amicable, if not entirely mutual decision, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that Tess’s “yearnings” for something else, for a more passionate engagement with the world, are going to cause some pretty major rifts.

Of course, Curtis is shattered. His way of life is irrevocably altered, although he rapidly learns of the joys of spontaneity and enthusiastic sex with a twenty year-old “tall short film maker”. Tess is devastated by this development, but given that she was the one who pulled the plug, she’s got little recourse. More interesting is the effect the breakup has on Annie and Bonnie’s relationship. Having never even considered the possibility of their friends separating, they start to question the foundation of their own union.

It’s a fairly thin conceit, and Murray-Smith doesn’t do a lot to flesh it out. She settles on two objects that serve as signifiers of the relationship – a copy of Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and an antique tantalus that Tess’s mother gave to Curtis – but while she integrates them into the plot, she never endows them with thematic or emotional weight. This could be a commentary on the arbitrary way couples invest meaning in external objects, but it seems a stretch.

Director Sarah Goodes, fresh from her triumph with John, does a terrific job keeping the piece afloat. She elicits uniformly strong performances, and never lets the play tilt too far into parody or flippancy. There’s a breeziness to the thing, a casual offhandedness that saves the characters from becoming maudlin or irritating. It means that Murray-Smith’s greatest asset – her savage wit – gets the space it needs, and the night whips along on the strength of the zingy one-liners.

Given her experience playing tough, competent women, McClements is not the obvious first choice for the flighty Tess, but she equips herself well; she’s actually a fine comic actor, and she helps smooth the character’s brittle edges. Houghton is wonderful as an initially hangdog Curtis, gradually allowing his resentments to seep through to the surface. Atkinson makes a truly sympathetic and touching Annie, and Tonkin is magnificent as the bullish and uncomprehending Bonnie. She’s an actor who should be far more famous than she is, and it’s a joy to see her so fine and funny here.

All up, Three Little Words is a thoroughly reliable, perfectly distracting entertainment. Michael Hankin’s open living set is pleasant and practical, Paul Jackson’s lighting is warm and inviting and, at under two hours without an interval, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Murray-Smith has asserted herself as Australia’s most popular playwright, and this will in no way dint her reputation, but it is something of a shame to see her regress from the tough and thrilling Switzerland to this kind of unambitious middle-class reassurance. Instead of pushing her ideas into uncomfortable, dangerous territory, she settles for some cheap physical farce and a superficially ambiguous ending that is really little more than a cop-out. It won’t upset the subscriber base, but it’s also unlikely to make new converts to the joy of theatre.

By: Tim Byrne

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