What do the terms “Nicomachean Ethics” and “lying whore” have in common? They are both used in the same sentence in A Fool in Love, Van Badham’s (Banging Denmark) snort-out-loud new romantic comedy, which uproariously kicks off Sydney Theatre Company's 2024 season. This is not an ‘exhale air from your nose while watching a funny scene’ kind of show – be prepared to discover how you truly laugh (and wheeze, and snort) in this fantastic performance.
The play is based on Spanish playwright Lope De Vega’s 17th century farce La Dama Boba, with a script curated thoughtfully to a contemporary audience whilst preserving the core themes of golden age comedia palatina works.
Badham has created an impossibly high bar for comedy...
Badham’s work is a masterclass in adaptation, one which is so meticulously tailored to Sydneysiders that it brings praise to her anthropological skills in acknowledging each of the Harbour City’s archetypes. Badham stays true to the tropes of a simple romantic comedy, however she elevates this story through parodying clichés of Sydney archetypes, which provides a level of localised humour and complexity that effortlessly expands the story.
The play is set in the fictional sun-drenched, coastal town of Illescas, a few hours away from Sydney. We open on two men seen rhythmically thrusting away in a dance – and with those pelvic thrusts, begins the story. A once-wealthy businessman, Otto Otavio (Johnny Nasser) is at the brink of financial ruin. His only hope of escaping poverty (or “having to catch the bus” – Otto’s words, not mine) is by marrying off his dim-witted daughter Phynayah (Contessa Treffone), who was left a lucrative estate by her deceased uncle – on the condition that she marries by her 30th birthday. Otto and his youngest daughter Vanessa (Melissa Kahraman) scheme to marry off Phynayah to the first willing bachelor to secure the estate she has been promised.
There is strong chemistry at play between Nasser, Treffone and Kahraman. Even though the three actors are not frequently seen together in the same scenes, their performances provide us solid contextual cues to understand the dynamic within their family. Contessa Treffone’s (On the Beach) camp entrance radiates an energetic performance that does not falter throughout her portrayal of the apparently dim Phynayah. Her real mastery, however, is shown in the small moments where Phynayah’s mask begins to crack. Treffone’s ability to momentarily reveal what lies beneath Phynayah’s “dumb blonde” facade – you’d almost miss it if you blinked – and then return back to her usual self is a wonder to watch. Equally as wonderful, Melissa Kahraman (Hubris & Humiliation) exudes the snobbiness needed for a character like the poetry-obsessed, pseudo-intellectual Vanessa. Her sultry entrance on the stage commands full attention. Even with her powerful presence, Kahraman seamlessly maneuvers her performance with other cast members to maintain a balanced dynamic and chemistry.
The breadth of Aaron Tsindos (City of Angels, Clyde’s) in his roles as Lee (the newly cashed-up tradie from Western Sydney) and Neeson (the bitchy son of an Eastern suburbs daddy) is astounding. Both characters carry their own distinct mannerisms and demeanor, which Tsindos seamlessly transforms into. Lee’s storyline, as the only expressly-referenced character from Western Sydney, is a wonderful change from the melancholic tropes that are attached to storytelling about the outer ‘burbs. However, in a story that is based on class, Badham appears to very much omit race. In a production which is staged in Sydney Theatre Company’s lofty home base in Walsh Bay, the jabs at Lee’s class in Western Sydney, accompanied by the accent performed by Tsindos (and mocked in the play) risks becoming condescending. Whilst the depiction of Lee is equally as satirical as every other character, with an audience that feels far removed from Lee’s world, the jokes become slightly contentious and uncomfortable.
A special recognition also has to go to Megan Wilding (The Seagull, The Importance of Being Earnest) as the fabulous Clare. Her comedic timing and gravitas always guarantees a hilarious reception from the audience. Imagine the bogan version of Karen Smith from Mean Girls – Wilding provides us with this imagining in real-time, and with a joy that appears to genuinely come from inhabiting the role.
The set design from Isabel Hudson (Constellations, Hubris & Humiliation) is so fantastically ‘Barbiecore’ that it would make Greta Gerwig jealous. Hudson’s equally campy costuming saturates the stage, adding a dimension of energy and ironic poise that magnifies the characterisation of the people of Illescas. If that is not enough to keep you buzzed, sound designer Michael Toisuta’s musical score, interspersed with pop hits, will keep you buzzing. Kenneth Moraleda keeps everything on track in his directorial debut with STC (the first of his residency with the company), allowing the ultra-theatrical comedic moments to shine without derailing the flow of the action.
The repertoire of comedic methods in the play ranges from ingenious wit to obtuse mannerism, to the satirisation of the many Australian dialects and the exaggerated sexual innuendos of a soap opera. In a story that is built on class, the play’s self-reflexive jokes and banter provide an element of truth that permits the audience to laugh at its reality. A Fool In Love’s self-deprecating nature is almost a love letter for those ‘on the other side of the bridge’. It is a recognition of class consciousness that also notes that many of us are really just complicit in “café-latte communist” chit.
In a time where fashions and trends, propelled by the whims of social media, change rapidly, it is all-too-easy for contemporary scripts to become cringeworthy and outdated before they’ve even made it onto the stage. However, Badham does not miss a step – the language of her script is laced with a naturalness that can certainly stand the test of time (or at the very least, lasting longer than the next few years’ worth of TikTok trends).
A Fool in Love is a fun-filled performance that also provides enough substance for the intellectual in your life. Badham has created an impossibly high bar for comedy, and she will have a lifelong fan in me for it.
A Fool in Love is playing at Sydney Theatre Co’s Wharf 1 Theatre, Walsh Bay, until March 17. Tickets range from $40-$125 and you can snap them up over here.