As you get your ticket checked for the theatre you are often confronted with a sign warning you of certain things happening in the play you’re about to watch. For example, we’ve been warned in the past for nut-related food fights that may rain upon the front rows. And as we went into our most recent Melbourne Theatre Company play—Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone—I was accosted by a sign warning me of theatrical smoke and nudity. And as I got into my seat, third row from the front, I thought to myself, well, someone’s going to get their boobs out, and everyone’s going to smoke like it’s cool. And I sighed. And then it happened.
The play opened with all the lights still on and the audience still gossiping away. The setting: a cafe and Laundromat. A man walked casually across the stage, completely naked, to retrieve his clothes from the dryer and put them on. The audience’s chattering died away. The man walked offstage; by then, everyone was silent. And so it began. And I was already pleased.
In an American cafe, a man’s cell phone rings and rings and he doesn’t answer it. The only other customer, Jean (a too cute Lisa McCune), is irritated, and says so—until she realises he’s not ignoring the phone because he likes to torment others with his choice of ringtone, but is ignoring it because he is dead. Lost in the moment, she answers the phone.
Soon she becomes involved with the dead man’s family, feeling obliged, as the person with Gordon when he died, to comfort them. She meets his bitter wife, Hermia (Sarah Sutherland); his cold mother, Harriet (Sue Jones); his saucy mistress, played by Emma Jackson; and his unloved brother, Dwight (Daniel Frederiksen). Hoping to help them through their grief, she begins to tell some little white lies about his final moments, including that he wanted her to have his phone, which keeps ringing, and ringing...
From its wonderful wang-filled opening, Dead Man’s Cell Phone is hilarious and enjoyable; while Jean is so eager-to-please it is a mite painful, and her motivations are sketchy, the characters are all such delightful exaggerations you can’t help but adore them. Harriet is monstrous in her way, but trips about in gorgeous shoes and says to Jean, “You very comforting. I don’t know why. You’re like a very small casserole. Has anyone ever told you that?” Hermia is very proper until she is drunk, then she is glorious; Dwight is just as awkward and pained as Jean. Gordon’s mistress is sexy and dramatic and underused, and clad in the most gorgeous coats around. In fact, the costumes might have been my favourite character. All ’40s lines, jaunty hats and big hair, all the characters were enormously visually appealing (and that’s even without Frederiksen’s nudity and the later topless stint by the alarmingly triangular John Adam.) Jean is a little less forties and more layered, to the point where I thought she was the best actor solely because she hadn’t fainted under the lights despite them: ribbed tights, socks, boots, turtleneck, dress, cardigan, jacket, coat. The music was fantastic as well; film noir-inspired dramatic chords constrasting with beautiful tinkling background sounds.
As with some other plays, I couldn’t help being irritated by the accents. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the play was American—though the “Cell Phone” in the title should have been a fairly obvious giveaway—and with Lisa McCune’s first “Excuse me?” barked in a shrill New-Yawk accent, I was a bit broken hearted. With Boston Marriage, I at least understood that it was set in a certain place and time, but this would have worked just as well with Australian accents. I mean, despite the semi-period clothes and music, the fact remains that with a title I have since renamed Dead Man’s iPhone (they used them) it is set now, and nothing implies it needs to be set in America. Admittedly I did enjoy Hermia’s squawking dramatics as she drank cocktails and lamented the demise of her marriage, and perhaps the accent made it a little more surreal and injected more humour. But it’s always so unnatural in person—even though they all seemed to do very good jobs, as far as I can tell (and I have absolutely no expertise in the area, so don’t even assume that I’m right about the accent’s region.)
After its initial hilarity, the script did descend in the end into something a little too farcical and twee by the end. Because of the play’s light touch, you kind of roll with the farce for a while, but for me it reached a certain point where I felt like I was in a different, fantastical play that was out of place there. It still remained enjoyable, but just a little silly, like that annoying friend who won’t understand when to stop being ridiculous. (I am guilty of mostly being that friend.)
The set design was interesting, yet to me a bit flawed (though Chris liked it.) The Laundromat format remains throughout, with tumble dryers everywhere to open and retrieve things from; tables are moved to form a church, drapes are pulled out to represent a home, but it was still, well, a Laundromat. I went with it until the end, when I felt I needed a firmer grasp of where exactly characters they were to figure out what the hell was happening.
Well, now that I’ve fussed over all the little details, the larger story is about our reliance on the phone: the little buzzy object we all adore so much (I am guilty of this also) and have such trouble ignoring, even if it is not ours. As Jean herself says, “When something rings, you have to answer it, don’t you?” While most normal people wouldn’t quite go to Jean’s lengths with a stranger’s phone, we can’t deny that the arrival of it has changed social interactions, and that we haven’t wanted to snatch away someone’s mobile and do something with it: throw it away, change their story, bop them with it for talking on it while you’re trying to serve them (not that this is a personal bugbear, of course.) And this was summarised perfectly by the discussion that immediately arose from the audience around us once the play ended, regarding one phone that suffered a terrible fate: “They didn’t really smash that phone, did they?” One boy said, sounding upset. Another replied wisely, “No, they couldn’t have. If it was a real iPhone, it wouldn’t have broken.” Truer words I have never heard.