Private Fears in Public PlacesIt would be impossible to solve the great mystery of human existence by designating every person in the world to singular pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The edges and outlines would overlap and extend in numerous directions, preventing one from ever completing the puzzle. People simply do not fit together into a neat, tessellating whole. Like continental plates, human beings continually rub against each other and earthquakes and tornadoes ensue.

Private Fears in Public Places is a comic tale of the overlapping lives of six people living in one city.  Written by Alan Ayckbourn and directed by Michael Gow, the play opens the Queensland Theatre Company 2007 season, leaving audiences sated but not enthralled by the upcoming theatrical year.

This British sitting room drama has all the basic characters of middle class society – the barman, the real estate agent, the officer, the professional, the businesswoman and the virtuous secretary with a secret personality. Ambrose, the barman, (played by Chris Betts) regularly serves ‘the usual’ drink to ex-army officer Dan (Paul Bishop). Meanwhile at home Dan’s fiancée Nicola, the professional, (Sarah Kennedy) is madly working with real estate agent Stewart (Bryan Probets) to find an apartment for the engaged couple. Stewart’s secretary Charlotte (Helen Howard) is also Ambrose’s home carer for his invalid father, and Stewart’s sister Imogen (Louise Brehmer) is trying to meet single men (or not so single) in the bar where Ambrose works. A quaint plot, varied and rich in dramatic potential, making for a pleasant enough performance.

The set design was stunning. A tiered staircase, covered in hotel print carpet, leading up to the same height as the upper levels of the theatre.  Several wider levels were strategically placed at various heights so as to create various settings such as a living room, a bar, and a dining table.  Encompassing the ascending staircase were wallpaper covered walls with doors on every wider level for various entrances and exits. The set was used very well. The episodic scenes were cleverly directed so that where one scene finished, the next one started while the actors from both scenes continued moving through the same setting. This created an overlapping of time and place that was symbolic of their overlapping lives. 

While the symbolism of the scene transitions was distinct, the actor’s accents were not. Their attempts at British accents were passable at best. Helen Howard, Bryan Probets and Chris Betts were all delightful in their roles, but a finger has to be pointed at Paul Bishop’s blatant imitation of John Cleese style playing. Most of the comic moments of the play were credited to Bishop’s characterization, but I found myself wondering if he hadn’t played his character with a John Cleese voice and a John Cleese swagger, would these moments have been so funny? Surely a mark of a great actor is what they individually bring to a role, not what they copy from someone else.

At times, Private Fears in Public Places felt like an old episode of Seinfield, with meaningless encounters and nothing unexpected. Certainly elements of characters and situations were revealed, but nothing changed in the story that wasn’t easily foreseeable – the characters were all the same people at the end of the play as they were at the beginning. It almost felt like nothing ‘happened’; there was no great climax that made you gasp in awe.

This review may appear extremely superficial, but in general Private Fears in Public Places was a play of trivial moments and simple pleasures. Certainly some of the acting can be criticized and the design can be praised, but on the whole the performance was nothing inspiring. It was fun, it made me giggle and I did enjoy it, but it wasn’t thrilling theatre. It was safe but not spectacular. I question why Queensland Theatre Company chose such a simple, light-hearted play for the first production of their 2007 season. My guess is because entertainment is a sure sell, but art often is not.

Queensland Theatre Company presents
Private Fears In Public Places
by Alan Ayckbourn

Venue: Cremorne Theatre | QPAC
Dates: 12 February - 17 March 2007
Tickets: $36 - $56. 26 & Under: $26

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