Babyteeth | BelvoirLeft – Eamon Farren

Would a nice, 14 year old girl fall in love with a 25 year old junkie on her way to her violin lesson? Would her educated, upper middle class parents allow the junkie to move into their underage daughter's bedroom? Both notions sound improbable in normal circumstances, but if the girl is dying of leukemia, with limited time to enjoy the experiences of her emerging adult self, then it sort of makes sense.

Like the film The Descendants and This Year's Ashes at The Griffin last year, this newly commissioned work for Belvoir by Rita Kalnejais takes a tragic situation, fills it with humour and optimism and delivers a work that is truthful, serious and life affirming.

Director Eamon Flack shrewdly gives the right amount of weight to both the humour and the awfulness of the situation in this beautifully acted comedy/tragedy.

Milla (stunning played by Sara West) has leukemia and she and her parents are struggling through the debilitating rounds of chemotherapy and still trying to lead a normal life, keeping up with school, piano lessons and work. Milla meets a homeless junkie at a train station, falls in love, brings him home and, in an hilarious scene, introduces him to her very nice, decent parents. And he stays, probably for all the wrong reasons.

We know what ultimately happens to Milla in the opening scene and so for the following two and a half hours Kalnejais reveals the back story of the preceding weeks. Although it is quite a common structural device, it works particularly well in this instance as it ensures the tone never becomes maudlin.

Helen Buday is an outstanding comic actress who, as Milla's mother, Anna, combines physical and verbal comedy with emotional vulnerability and delivers a haunting performance. At first glance we take her to be quite mad, but very quickly realise that she is a perfectly sane mother going out of her mind with grief and delirious on antidepressants. This is not a histrionic comic character by any means, but very real and it gets harder to laugh at her as the play progresses and we learn more about the situation.

Greg Stone's Henry, a psychiatrist, is the warm and wise father who keeps his family stable, but who privately suffers the same deep grief as his wife. Stone is marvellous as the low key, adorable Henry.

Together, Stone, Buday and West share a poignant chemistry as Henry, Anna and Milla. Each one of them is wonderful. Kalnejais has created a very believable and moving dynamic between these three characters and her dialogue nails the shifts between love, rudeness and anger that exists between adolescents and their parents.

Eamon Farren, as the interloper, Moses, looks perfect. It is the play's most difficult and enigmatic role to perform. We never quite understand what Milla sees in him, other than he is so unlike her family, but maybe that's the point. For days after seeing this production you will still be wondering what exactly he did or didn't do and you will never know what he felt about it all.

Robert Cousins' set design – a revolve containing three sets – serves the production well, although the cheap, makeshift kitchen (in which the snazzy radio looks more expensive than the oven) was incongruous given it was in the family home of a well-paid psychiatrist. But at least there was a set, which is more than can be said for the current production of Pygmalion at the STC.

Kalnejais' writing is whip smart, insightful and well crafted, but it could have been edited to deliver a tighter work. The daffy neighbour is often part of the formula in comedies. In this case it is Toby (Kathryn Beck) – young, pregnant and stupid, but cheerful. Toby's first scene with Henry was well written and amusing, but instead of advancing the play in any way, it slowed it down. It didn't give us any greater insight into Henry; instead it drew focus from the central plot – which has enough humour and dramatic light and shade in itself to not need a comic diversion. While Gidon, the Latvian violin teacher (Russell Dykstra), genuinely plays a significant role, similarly, his scenes go on gratuitously long, especially his first. This really is a minor quibble as I was very happy to watch Kathryn Beck and Russell Dykstra do their very humorous best in these scenes.

The main role these second-tier characters play is to demonstrate how, beyond the family's grief, life goes on and new life begins: Toby has her baby and Gidon finds a new violin protege (played alternately by real 11 year old violin prodigies, David Carreon and Sean Chu).

Kalnejais finishes it off on an optimistic and cathartic note which is both moving and joyful.


Belvoir presents
Babyteeth
by Rita Kalnejais

Director Eamon Flack

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre | Upstairs
Dates: 11 February – 18 March, 2012
Times: Tuesday 6.30pm | Wednesday to Friday 8pm | Saturday 2pm & 8pm | Sunday 5pm
Tickets: Full $62 | Seniors (excluding Fri/Sat evenings) $52 | Concession $42
Bookings: 02 9699 3444 or www.belvoir.com.au







Most read Sydney reviews

More from this author