‘The Keys to the Animal Room’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by November 21, 2013

‘The Keys to the Animal Room’ is a powerful adult drama, crafted by Melbourne based lecturer, author and playwright, Peta Murray. This commissioned play won an Australian Writers’ Guild Award in 1994.

This 100-minute drama is being produced by the Murdoch Theatre Company, and presented at the Murdoch University Drama Workshop, off car park, Murdoch University, 90 South Street, Murdoch.

There are four shows nightly at 7.00, with the final show on Saturday 16th November. There is also one matinee at 3.00 pm on Saturday.

Phil Collins’ prophetic song, ‘In the Air Tonight’ fades. It is shortly before a Christmas in the mid-1990s and something is certainly in the air. The scene is a sitting room that has been trashed, the contents are strewn everywhere (set design Daley King).

Soft, loving Julie (Tenielle Clarke) and demanding Carl (Rhys Hyatt) have been married for several years. Now both sides of the families are gathered, riddled with guilt and worried about what has happened to Julie, a wreck, who is sitting on the floor with a blank look that hides so many tragic emotions.

In the room with Julie is her brother, police constable Tony (Andrew Dawson), her lesbian sister-in-law, Penny (Leah Toyne), her widowed father-in-law, Barry (Laughton Mckenzie) who hasn’t been the best of fathers over the years. The scenes flash back and forth throughout the play; from their childhood to the present day marriage.

We see Julie moving in with Carl. Into a house that he originally bought along with his previous fiancée – who left him! Even here, despite the bewitched Julie’s care and love, Carl is a total bastard.

 The lighting design (Daley King) is restrained and with well-chosen lamp cell colours. The operation (Rebecca Thompson) is subtle and flows well with the emotions. A hanging birdcage, well up in the set, casts a shadow on the wall reminding us of the captured creatures that – like Julie – we keep for our own entertainment. The mood is completed by simple soundscape of almost plodding music from Aiden Willoughby (operated by Launcelot Ronzan). The costumes (Cassee Lazic, Shannon Rogers) have been well considered, adding to the personalities of each character and the era.

The author cleverly feeds snippets of the characters to the audience as she travels back and forward in time. She employs metaphors and symbolism such as the layers of babushka dolls. Just when you think that you understand the logic of the character, your feelings swing.

Thanks to the sympathetic direction you can see the tension building in the characters as they hide their feelings and paper over the cracks, bury their heads in the sand and refuse to discuss the problems on hand.

As the audience sit watching the apathy or disinterest of the family members, one wonders if we too have been complicit in such happenings. I am sure we know friends that have suffered like this – but could we have done something to protect them? Are we bringing up our children in the caring environment we were? If so, is it the correct one? The questions fly around your head as you leave the auditorium.

This play is the most powerful that I have seen both in community and professional theatre for a long time. It left the whole audience breathless. It is the genre that if handled even slightly wrongly by the actors or the by the directors, could have been a disaster. The co-directors Amy Murray and Rebecca Thompson have bravely taken on an extremely difficult play to produce effectively as their first major directing task. The challenging script is strongly narrative-based, and because the actors have to feel easy with rapid and powerful dialogue the directors were wise to allow actors’ input.

When actors argue often the dialogue becomes gabbled and indistinct, so it is important to let them find their own, natural level of pace to match the body language.

I have known Tenielle Clarke’s admirable work for several years now, and this is her crowning glory, she completely captured the depth of the young woman’s anger, grief and passion perfectly. The performances by the whole cast were superb, but Tenielle Clarke and Rhys Hyatt just blew us away. As the time went back and forward throughout the seven years of marriage, Tenielle had to change in a split second from a wife who is depressed, to nervous, one totally besotted by her new husband and then back to despair. Rhys was totally convincing as the irrational husband, and one could genuinely believe that he was in fact married to Tenielle with mood swings triggered by jealousy and self-doubt. Rhys has also had a varied career, and has tried many theatre genres with success.

The pace, the chemistry the subtle showing of emotions left everyone stunned. It certainly wasn’t an easy ‘watch’, and at times it was difficult not to rush onto the stage and protect poor Julie or to attack her diabolical husband. With such a drama, the silence at the end before the applause is a guide to success, but when the whole audience sit in total silence for minutes after a play finishes – that is a triumphant success.

A production of this quality doesn’t come around very often, so please try and catch it.