Crunch Time

Theatre
3 out of 5 stars
Crunch Time
Photograph: Prudence Upton

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

The end of an era: David Williamson’s final play before retirement makes its debut at the Ensemble Theatre

There’s a certain kind of play. It might be the kind of play most people imagine when they’re asked to conjure one up in their minds (after Shakespeare or the Greeks, perhaps). It involves a family – white and at least middle-class – in conflict. Maybe secrets are revealed over a dinner table. Maybe sons fight for their father’s approval. Maybe there are dramatic complications about family assets or lineage. 

Crunch Time, reportedly the last play by Australian playwriting stalwart David Williamson, is one of these plays. In it, Steve, a white, upper-class patriarch (played by Blue Heelers’ John Wood) fumbles firing his son Luke (Guy Edmonds) from the family business. Full control is given to the smoother, more confident brother, Jimmy (Matt Minto), and Luke is understandably angry and hurt. Steve cuts him out of his will, and the relationship between them is severed. Helen (Diane Craig), who is the kind of steadfast wife and mother you’ll see in many of these plays, is the one family member still connected to all three men. She tries her best to bring them all back together. It doesn’t really work.

And then things get more tangled. Steve is dying and wants to follow a voluntary assisted suicide path to the end of his life. But will the family issues be resolved before he’s lost to them? Who will be at his side when the time comes?

Crunch Time is a swift-moving but largely perfunctory work. Its characters are archetypes that are barely fleshed out. If the men are all under-served by the writing, the women receive downright insulting treatment: Helen is saintlike; Luke’s wife Lauren (Emma Palmer) is given the sole character trait of wanting Luke’s family money; Jimmy’s wife Susy (Megan Drury) is Type-A and demanding (though Drury infuses her with as much soul as she can). The dialogue is riddled with cliché and delivered at arms’ length.

Director Mark Kilmurry has dialled into the promptness of Williamson’s script and gives the play its own cracking pace; it only slows down towards the end for a few pivotal conversations – ones that edge the play towards real emotion, at least, if not fully embrace it. There are some tentative conversations here that seem to hold the real heart of a play, when a man reckons with his parenting choices, and his sons reflect on how they have been shaped as men. More of this throughout the play could have given it a more sensitive edge. Less misogyny in the writing and treatment of the women onstage, too, would have helped make a better point about the emotional chokehold of masculinity. Still, there’s a bit of effort.
Williamson wrote plays for an astounding 50 years. Some of them have been incisive and pulsing with feeling. Some have been electric, political, knowing, challenging. Some of them have asked us to, collectively, take a good long look at ourselves. Some have been funny, some have been moving. And some of them have been just another play about white, well-off people, that look inward and feel like a shortcut to a solid ending. I have often struggled to like his recent plays, which have felt out of step with the cultural and social conversation around us. Williamson won’t be remembered for Crunch Time, not when there are plays like The Removalists and Don’s Party and The Club under his belt. But he will be remembered for sitting down and writing for years and years, doing his best to tell stories that contribute to our cultural identity. You can’t always go out with a bang, but Williamson didn’t need one. He’s done the work.

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