‘Ruben Guthrie’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by August 6, 2014

‘Ruben Guthrie’ is hilarious drama by Australian playwright, Brendan Cowell, who is a Patrick White Playwrights’ Award winning author. This semi-autobiographical, hard-hitting, contemporary story is being presented by Curtin’s Performance Studies and the Hayman Theatre Company in the Hayman Theatre Upstairs, building 102, Curtin University, Bentley. The two-hour performances are each night at 7.00, until Saturday 9th August.

First produced in 2008, it won the Philip Parsons Young Playwrights’ Award. Brendan was also nominated for a Silver Logie and an AFI Award.

He wrote this play after a year of alcoholic binges, followed by self-imposed temperance.

 

We are in Ruben’s bar room, facing onto Sydney Harbour. The walls are red brick (really handmade polystyrene, painted with hundreds of hours work!) with illuminated shelves, holding every bottled booze imaginable. There is a comfortable leather armchair in the centre of the stage (Set designed by Lauren Ross and assisted by Michelle Endersbee)). The mood lighting, with many different lamp designs and styles was perfectly considered by Lighting Designer, Karen Cook – operated by Rhiannon Petersen.

On the right of the stage is a small dais with the Ruben Guthrie Band. The band plays. With ukulele in hand, the smooth, solo vocal tones of Eloise Carter, Jack Middleton, Jordan Norrish and George Ashforth are heard. With Keith Ong on guitar, they are playing blues as the audience arrive.

 

       Seated in the chair is self-centred egotist, Ruben (Nathan Whitebrook) who explains the reason for his facial scar and broken arm. Advertising genius Ruben is at the top of his game, driven on by his smooth – almost slimy – boss Ray (Jarryd Dobson) and the demand for Ruben’s iconic Australian jingles.  He had been to yet another advertising industry awards night, and once again, he has won a major prize. To celebrate, he became blind drunk and had an accident.

      Ruben has made the decision to become teetotal and join AA. However, for his Czech fiancé, supermodel Zoya (Amy Johnston) it was too late, she has had enough of the inconsiderate swine and is returning to Prague. Alone in his flat, Ruben decides to make a new start. Throw out the advertising and start to write novels in poetry. His overbearing mother (Eleanor Davidson) tells him he is mad to give up such a lucrative job. His alcoholic father (George Ashforth) who has just left home for a young Asian girlfriend, thinks the best thing for Ruben to do, is just get pissed every night, ‘after all he was happy doing that’.

      One night an old girlfriend, Virginia (Róisín Bevan) appears on the scene and she encourages Ruben’s sobriety. Ruben feels secure – until another character from his schooldays arrives, a gay lover, Damien (Sean Guastavino). Damien has just arrived from the airport with a bag full of quality booze, and moves in. He sings George Michael’s ‘Faith’ with passion as he cooks sausages.

      Will Ruben, who is working well with the AA steps, be tempted? Who will win his heart?

 

Under the direction of admired actor / director, Mark Storen (assisted by Ariel Tresham), this magnificent production unfolds. The play is two hours with NO interval, however the time flew by. The whole cast was required to show a large range of moods and temperaments; there was singing dancing – the demands on the cast being huge. Ruben was on stage the whole time, but Nathan Whitebrook giving a faultless performance. This is a young man with a good future. Amy conquered the Czech accent subtly and convincingly reacted to Ruben’s strange attitude.

The parents are depicted with such clarity that I am sure a few in the audience will have cringed at seeing their own parents before them. Róisín was the perfect lover, and the chemistry between the actors sizzled. The performance of Sean as the alcoholic friend was hilarious. Well observed and carefully presented, it was authentic and not a tasteless caricature – an outstanding piece of acting.

 

There was a long, sad period when I struggled to find any redeeming points in Curtin plays. The acting was often well below school performances. However, this play is back to the good old days, the performances are solid and assured; the design and costumes have plenty of thought and the quality shone through. The musical accompaniment was imaginative and actually musical – how often do we get a few bum notes offered as a music?

At the final curtain there was a standing ovation. I do not think that I have seen one at Curtin in the last decade, and this was not simply student friends being kind, the whole house stood in admiration. A brilliant show, highly recommended.