|“Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were,” sang Neil Young in what has to be one of the greatest male power ballads of all time. In most cases, old Neil is probably right. Current psychological theory certainly supports his claims. Men model their behaviour on the fathers who raise them. But what happens in the absence of a man on which to model? How do these boys learn to become who they are and in turn raise male offspring of their own?It’s this puzzle of what nurture provides – or rather, the lack of it – that most interests Matthew Whittet in his latest offering, Old Man, now playing at Downstairs Belvoir. It’s a fair topic to probe given how widespread “fatherlessness” is becoming in contemporary society and the scary statistics that accompany it; it’s claimed that youth suicide, drug abuse and homelessness are all proportionally much higher in boys raised without fathers.
Whittet’s examination eschews the A Current Affair-style horror stats to take a more intimate and tender approach, peaking into the home life of one average thirty-something man grappling with the consequences of his own abandonment at the age of three. Daniel (Leon Ford) awakes one morning to find his wife Sam (Alison Bell) and their two children have mysteriously disappeared. There’s no note, no explanation, they just aren’t there anymore. Confused and bereft, he contacts his mother Carol (Gillian Jones) to help make sense of it all. But instead of gaining answers their talk simply raises more questions; and doubts. Has he been a good husband and father? And how could he really expect to be one when he never had a father of his own?
Old Man is a play of two styles. “Part One”, as director Anthea Williams refers to it, is a kind of rambling first-person narrative where the characters speak directly to the audience. Their emotions pour out unfiltered as genuine reactions rather than considered responses. The effect is that the action flows over us and through us, we become a part of it. We are inside the characters heads thinking their thoughts and feeling them. This could be ponderous stuff, but Williams has a lightness of touch; when pressure is applied it’s meaningful because she hasn’t been beating us about the head with it relentlessly.
Of course plaudits must go to the cast. Leon Ford, like Whittet, a father himself, has put that emotional homework to good use here crafting a performance that is sensitive, astute and restrained – when it needs to be. Most men don’t let it all hang out, even when no one’s watching, and there’s an acknowledgement of that in the pitch of Ford’sperformance. Even in the height of despair he holds it together. Because that’s what a man has to do, right? It’s this question of how to “be”, how to behave and react, that lies at the heart of this work and is its most fascinating aspect, from a performance point of view.
When we flip over to “Part Two” sans interval via blackout, we are given a diametrically opposed style of emotional walls, as the fourth wall abruptly arrives to push the characters back inside themselves. What is said and left unsaid now becomes the riveting focus of a plot that turns everything we took for granted on its head.
While Ford carries the bulk of Old Man on his shoulders – in this, his impressive Belvoir debut – barely leaving the stage for the tightly wound 75 minutes duration, Alison Bell’s subtle influence as Sam resonates throughout and is profoundly felt. Madeleine Benson sparkles as headstrong teen Charlotte, a young actor with a bright future indeed; and Peter Carroll lends weight as absent father Albert by hiding all the answers Daniel seeks behind a gentle, cheery countenance.
Whittet won the 2010 Philip Parsons Young Playwrights Award with his proposal for this play. It’s a work well suited to the close embrace of the Downstairs space, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were to creep Upstairs at Belvoir sooner rather than later.
Director Anthea Williams
Venue: Downstairs Theatre | Belvoir St Theatre, 25 Belvoir St Surry Hills
This review first appeared on Australian Stage June 2012