The Humans review

Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
The Humans Old Fitz Theatre 2018 production shot
Photograph: Clare Hawley

This Broadway hit makes its Australia premiere in the intimate Old Fitz Theatre

Stephen Karam’s haunting 2015 family drama, The Humans, is the type of play you’d expect Australia’s major theatre companies to be falling over themselves to premiere. It won the Tony Award for Best Play, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and played a long and successful Broadway season. The original Broadway cast just last week opened the play on London’s West End, the same week that the play had its Australian premiere at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, a 60-seat theatre in the basement of a Woolloomooloo pub.

So why hasn’t it been picked up by a bigger local company yet? Well, it’s about a middle-class family of white Americans coming together at the holidays for a meal, at which secrets are uncovered. It’s easy to see why The Humans might have fallen through the gaps – there has been no shortage of plays with similar setups in recent decades – in a time when our theatre companies are starting to engage more seriously with questions of what stories we tell and who gets to tell them.

But Karam’s play takes a familiar format to a new level of realism – the characters are all extraordinarily sharply drawn – and injects unexpected stakes. It’s called a “family thriller”, and although there’s never really any immediate threat of violence or danger (apart from the deeply unsettling sounds reverberating around the creepy, cheap New York apartment where it takes place) the characters all have plenty to fear: unemployment, imploding relationships and illness.

The family is the Blakes: there’s Brigid (Madeleine Jones) and her boyfriend Richard (Reza Momenzada), who’ve just moved into the apartment; Brigid’s lawyer sister Aimee (Eloise Snape), who’s recently split up with her partner and is struggling to make her career work with an often debilitating illness; their parents Dierdre (Di Adams) and Erik (Arky Michael), who’ve been neglected by their daughters; and Erik’s mother, Momo (Diana McLean), whose dementia has well and truly taken hold. They have a few things to be thankful for this year, but there’s a sense that by the time next Thanksgiving rolls around any one of them could have fallen under the wheels of a harsh and competitive world.

Anthea Williams – who was an associate director at Belvoir for six years and recently directed another American family drama that subverts the format – has crafted a production that takes advantage of the cramped Old Fitz Theatre. Jonathan Hindmarsh’s finely realised set includes two levels of the apartment and pushes the actors almost into the audience’s laps; the front row has a sign saying “short legs only”. But the effect is entirely immersive – like we are sharing this space and meal with the family.

The cast members all deliver performances that come from a place of truth, and the relationships feel lived-in enough to make a fairly mundane scenario constantly compelling. But given the intimacy of the set-up, there are times when they could dial the volume down just a tad.

Eloise Snape and Madeleine Jones are both entirely at ease as the two sisters whose cruelty to their mother is so careless and unconscious it comes as a total shock. Di Adams is a standout as the mother trying to hold the family together with love, and Diana McLean is superb in a mostly wordless role, acting as a conduit to the terror that’s threatening to engulf them all.

That terror isn’t really apparent until the end of the play, when you realise it’s been lurking underneath the surface the entire time. It’s a play that starts with family dynamics so recognisable, it’d be difficult to leave without it niggling its way under your skin. It might be a shame that the bigger subscription audiences of our city’s major theatre companies won’t get to see this play, but few could be disappointed by this Australian premiere.

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