If you’ve ever been to a party that started quiet and chilled – nice wine, some jazzy music – and ended with raucous singing, table dancing, and far too many shots then there’s a chance you’ll connect on some level with Thirty Three. This Australian play from writers Micheal Booth and Alister Powning is making its UK debut at the Leicester Square Theatre, and the duo are also currently fundraising for a film adaptation of the play. Thirty Three examines one evening with a group of Aussie friends and the complicated events of one of their number’s Thirty- third birthday party. The play uses a naturalistic form and acting style to provide an interesting examination of adult relationships and how complex they can be. It attempts to be an art-reflecting-life performance but unfortunately misses the mark a little at points due to some irritating spacing in the Leister Square Theatre’s Lounge space, and some scenes that drag rather than grip its audience.
As every good dinner party should, this one starts with wine and nibbles strategically placed on the coffee table. Almost immediately however, birthday girl Saskia (Corinne Furlong) is surprised by the arrival of her younger brother, Josh (Doug Hansell), appearing on her doorstep after three years of the two not being in contact. Determined to enjoy her birthday, Saskia welcomes him in but things start to unravel as her friends begin to arrive with their own complicated lives following in tow. Maya (Amy Domenica) is determined to convince her soon-to-be-ex-husband Tim that the few times she didn’t come home she was staying at Saskia’s, Lilly (Shannon Steele) arrives having seemingly broken up with her girlfriend via a blunt text, and Tim (Christopher Birks) arrives with his wild friend Lochlan (Ben Dalton). The group drink a toxic concoction of tequila and Jägerbombs and things begin to slip sideways a little. Tempers rise, jealously ensues and casual drug use transpires as they snort cocaine off a dinner plate and pop unspecified pills. It’s a complex mix of youthful exploits and the tone of the party seems younger than thirty-three.
It’s also a complicated friendship group. Tensions between Maya and Tim reveal their rocky relationship: Tim will soon be moving out of their shared house and they are getting a divorce. The underlying subtext of their relationship is clear in the interactions of the couple. Side conversations, drunken word-vomit, and gloomy confessions reveal the build up to their broken relationship is a series of unexplained absences from Maya and a long period of unhappiness on both sides. It’s visceral and real, and mirrors the way many human relationships breakdown in the real world.
The relationship between Saskia and Josh is interestingly developed as the play progresses and the audience are fed trickles of information throughout the performance as to why he has turned up out of the blue, uninvited, to his sister’s birthday dinner. They have an estranged relationship with a difficult childhood but they seem genuine enough through their dialogue, which is often awkward and reflects the three-year gap in which neither knew anything about the other’s life. Josh’s secrets reveal themselves and the tension between the siblings is exposed, climaxing in the traditional family shouting match which dregs up their challenging past.
The intimacy of the Lounge space sometimes makes the audience feel like they are eavesdropping on very private conversations between the characters but it’s easy to see elements of our own relationships in the complexities presented, especially between siblings Saskia and Josh. Saskia cared for her brother when they were younger and, as she argues, effectively raised him. She holds the position of responsibility within their relationship for a long time and Josh rebels against this through his lengthy estrangement. His reluctance to see his sister for so long reflects the degradation of modern human relationships. It reflects the difficulties we have when communicating in a society which increasingly favours communication through technology and alludes to relationships through “likes” and Facebook “friends”.
The Lounge at the Leicester Square theatre is a small sixty-five seat space. Thirty-Three’s Director Kai Raisbeck and set designer Charlotte Henery have configured this space so that the audience sits on three sides of the square with the two wide pillars downstage framing Saskia’s living room. Sadly, some of the interesting moments are lost because of this staging which forces the audience to stare at the back of at least one of the actors during intimate conversations held downstage, an area used to symbolise Saskia’s back porch using hanging bulbs and the sound of crickets. This results in the attention of some audience members dwindling at times, I watched others’ eyes wondering around the room as mine did, and it is hard for the audience to feel a significant connection with characters in these moments when we can’t see their faces. One gets the feeling that Thirty Three could do with a little more room to spread out if it is really going to achieve the mirror-of-society effect that it seems to be attempting with its dialogue.
On the other hand, the performance gives the audience fly-on the-wall status, as the we are almost part of the party: we sit defining the edge of the stage and the actors are never more than a meter and a half from your knees. Unfortunately, in some respects Thirty Three is a bit of a half-way house: I don’t think the audience is ever as fully involved or absorbed as we might be during an immersive piece of theatre, but neither do we have the full detachment of the fourth wall that we might be in a piece of truly naturalistic theatre.
There are, however, honest moments in the writing that draw us in and the character relationships are the strongest component to Thirty-Three and do shine through despite the awkward feeling of the staging. The realistic feel to the dialogue is an achievement if not sometimes slightly dull, but perhaps this says more about my life than it does about the writing and perhaps I need to proceed by examining my own human connections and their possible insipidness… Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing this play developed into a feature film if it manages to find the funding. I never thought I’d hear myself say it, and feels almost paradoxical, but I feel that the intimacy of Micheal Booth and Alister Powning’s writing might work better through the divide of a screen where we can clearly observe each character as they are presented, rather than within the confines of a tiny theatre stage.
Thirty-Three is showing at the Leicester Square Theatre until the 24th of June. For more information and tickets see here.