Clare Baron's play about family, personhood, grief and illness makes its Australian debut
Horny and heartsick. It’s a hell of a combo. It’s also how Mae (Harriet Gordon-Anderson), the protagonist of Clare Barron’s You Got Older, in its Australian premiere at Kings Cross Theatre, feels all the time.
It hasn’t always been this way, but suddenly life has become complicated and very sad. She’s lost her job, broken up with her boyfriend (he was her boss, so... these two things were related), and her dad has cancer.
It’s tough to be back at the family home, finding patience with her sweet father (Steve Rodgers), who might be lovely and beloved but is still a parental figure; sometimes that chafes. Plus, she keeps having vivid sexual fantasies about cowboys (Gareth Rickards, with a hell of a drawl), which is totally incongruent with having to stay in her little sister’s bedroom.
You Got Older is a gently spiky play about family, personhood, grief and illness, and in the intimate Kings Cross Theatre, it feels almost voyeuristic. There’s Mae and her fantasies. There’s her dad, coughing until he can’t breathe. There’s her siblings (Alex Beauman, Ainslie McGlynn, and Sarah Rae Anne Meacham, a boisterous crew with strong chemistry), trading family in-jokes in a hospital room.
Barron’s playwriting voice is charmingly frank, and her dialogue sits comfortably in the performance lexicon of director Claudia Barrie’s assembled cast. While it’s refreshing to see a play that places a woman’s experience of family front and centre, rather than as an accessory to a man’s journey or as the sole repository of a family unit’s feelings, it skates by on a boisterous female-power credibility that it hasn’t entirely earned. The play doesn’t necessarily cover new ground – the family’s women are still the carers and organisers, whether they want to be or not. And there’s a romance with genial hometown boy Mac (Cody Ross) that feels shoehorned in; Mae’s open, unapologetic sexuality, which has earned a lot of praise from overseas runs of the play, begins to feel less like a feminist act and more like a way to spice up the story and titillate.
Still, Barrie continues to be a champion director of the Sydney independent scene, teasing empathy out of audiences with straightforward, skilful world-building and emotional reality. Her direction elevates this good play by building a very good production around it, and giving her cast room to process their characters, and their relationships with each other, in a way that feels disarmingly recognisable.
Gordon-Anderson carries the play with the ease of a much more experienced actor, and the ensemble work playfully, and respectfully, together. Beauman, McGlynn and Meacham manage to build complex portraits out of each of the siblings (Meacham is a particular standout), and Rodgers is an anchoring, lovable presence as their patriarch. Dialect coach Amanda Stephens-Lee has helped the characters find their truth in faithful American accents, and Shondelle Pratt’s movement choreography helps turn an affecting scene into something that melds joy and the deepest grief into something co-dependent.
As part of the run of You Got Older, Kings Cross Theatre and Mad March Hare Theatre Co (the producing company presenting the play), are supporting two pertinent charities – the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia and Lung Foundation Australia. This is one of the ways that theatre can reach out with both hands into the world – to tell a story, and to help us take that story with us out into the world after the curtain call, and hopefully use it to help build a better place. To go along is to be part of a community of art and change.