The Grenade, by Australian playwright Tony McNamara, has catapulted up the internationally-renowned chart of Fiona’s Favourite MTC plays to be equal number one with Grace. Grace made me weep. The Grenade made me have an embarrassing coughing fit because I was laughing so hard. So in the lesser-known but equally lauded chart of Fiona’s Favourite MTC Comedies, this is an absolute number one.
Political advisor Busby McTavish comes home to his beloved family one night and finds a live grenade on his lounge room floor. Who would do something like this? When you’re in politics, it could be anyone—or perhaps it’s an enemy of his teenage daughter Lola, because all teenagers have enemies. Or is it someone closer to home? Could something like this twist your trust in your family? Busby takes charge, turns his house into a fortress, and watches his family’s every move. And somehow, it’s hilarious.
After all these plays it still takes me a while to warm to seeing people physically in front of me acting and to let myself get involved in the world of theatre after being so used to cinema, where, because it’s onscreen with elaborate sets, you can abandon yourself to that “reality” much easier. But happily this didn’t take long, distracting me with jokes straight away—and the flawless set helped. A rotating stage held four different scenes, some malleable, all perfect, though most of the play was set in the McTavish’s plush lounge room and kitchen. The faultless lighting turned the rooms into night and days so realistic I was almost surprised to find it dark outside when I left. The sound seemed a bit low at the start (or I have been listening to my iPod with the sound up too loud again, a probable alternative), but then became pitch-perfect, with fitting dramatic musical interludes as the set revolved to the next scene. So, top-notch production, meaning that at the end when the actors gesture to the crew of the play I was clapping just as hard.
Garry McDonald surprised me by cutting quite a dashing figure, trim in his nice suits and still looking the same (from the upper level of the Playhouse, anyway) as he did twenty years ago. Busby’s wife, ex-nun Sally, is played with beauty and naive humour along with the fraught panic of a new mother by Belinda Bromilow; Neighbours starlet Eloise Mignon shines as the high-pitched Mensa-genius daughter, openly attempting rebellion. Wheat, the oddity love interest of Lola played by Gig Clarke, gives a persuasive and esoteric performance; Jolyon James channels Fabio as open-minded erotic novelist Randy Savage, commissioned along with romance novelist Sally to write a new genre of novel (“erotomance”, or “romagasm”), and there to upstage Busby in every possible way and send women into a frenzy with just a touch. Genevieve Picot is Busby’s ex-wife Kerry, a woman unafraid of admitting her faults (Busby shouts at her, “You shagged two of my co-workers!” and she says, “You said to mingle!” to which he replies, “I didn’t mean juices!”). Rounding out the cast is Mitchell Butel, as Whitman, McTavish’s energetic and amoral co-worker.
Busby is occasionally a bit of a prick, and has a job that celebrates such a character trait, but ultimately he is redeemed by the adoration he has for his family. Characters like Wheat, who arrives for his first meeting with Lola’s father wearing a balaclava, and Randy, whose heroic acts toe the line of the unlikely, are so bizarre and unrealistic that they veer right back into strangely human. They’re an idiosyncratic bunch, frankly, especially six-month-old Michael, Sally and Busby’s son, whose astonishing exploits have his family convinced that he is a demon.
Look, it’s not as perfect as I’m making it out to be. If there’s one thing I never find funny, it’s men whining about how women never have enough sex with them, a gag that is as painfully overdone in this play as it is in reality. The actually fairly horrific subplot about Busby’s current work situation is handled far too lightly. But on the whole, it was hilarious, and I would completely recommend it. The fact that it’s an Australian script doesn’t hurt either; you can get all choked up with patriotic pride in our abilities as a nation, too. Nowhere else could a joke about Julia Gillard’s tongue ring make any sense.