Pint Sized Horror: Review of Unhappen’s Cough
Emily Calder’s new play Cough (2014) demonstrates what the theatre is capable of doing, even on a modest budget. Calder’s play takes us through the realm of imagination and into the minds of both children and their parents. The action focuses around the playground of a day care centre, where actors Melissa Brownlow, Vanessa Cole, and Tim Reuben by turn play a trio of three year olds and their parents. The children play in the sandbox daily. They tease and taunt one another and create fantasy worlds that both terrify and excite them. The adults, meanwhile, embody the classic helicopter parent: they obsess over their children’s wellbeing to the point where an extra bowel movement is symptomatic of impending disaster.
Cough centers around the theme of fear, specifically fear as an emotion that we create within ourselves. As children, the trio envisage (with the help of a strange boy named Frank) a monstrous beast named Brian that lives in a tree and feasts on toddlers. In the interim, their parents see danger around every corner, primarily in the form of an infectious cough which is doing the rounds. They take it very seriously and it presents a constant source of anxiety. However, through an imaginative juxtaposition we come to see that the fears of these parents are equally constructed within their own minds. Interestingly, the focal point of the fear (for both parent and child) comes in the form of a tree that appears one day in the playground. Over a period of several days it grows to fifty meters high. For the children it is Brian’s domain; their parents are simply afraid they will climb it.
So to the cast: Melissa Brownlow personified tired diplomacy as the night shift nurse Julie. Brownlow cleverly left us questioning whether Julie is actually mellow in her parenting or whether she is just too busy and thus neglectful of her own child. When transitioned to Jess however, Brownlow came into her own. Brownlow’s Jess was a peevish brat and a particularly aggressive child. It makes one question the value of the parental shadow.
A stand out for the evening was Vanessa Cole, a truly magnificent performer. Sporting a powerful voice that produced an intense range of lyricism, Cole shined as Isabelle, the highly involved mother of Isla. Cole explored this clamorous character on a tightrope, treading carefully between domineering and ‘anxious concern’ to near hysterical. As her daughter, Isla, Cole transformed into a tiny though highly indulgent tot. Cole cannot be faulted.
Tim Reuben plays the newly single Clive, Sudoku extraordinaire and father to Finlay. Reuben played with beautiful nuance and determined stereotype in depicting Clive’s neuroses about Finlay and sand germs. He was spirited and warm with a large dollop of bitter and twisted. As Finlay, Reuben nailed the fractious child’s play, absolutely letting his imagination run wild.
Another stand out for the evening was the terrifying Tom Christophersen as Frank, a disturbed little boy or possible apparition of fear (think 80s horror films about the possessed child). This three year old is manipulative and verbally violent, something that is particularly unsettling when played by a man of Christophersen’s height. His performance was filled with demonic fury with just a touch of autism. Christophersen is truly a versatile player with much theatrical electricity.
Director James Dalton has taken this intriguing script and created a very affecting piece of theatre. With the use of haze and throw lighting a fantasy realm is created; yet this world is a threatening, almost nightmarish one that is deeply unsettling. The idea that this menace is the product of our own imaginings is all the more terrifying, but at the same time it means that the power to confront and overcome it also exists within us. The lesson for these adults is that constructed fears are not so terrifying once we find the courage to confront them.
It is a great testament to everyone involved in this production that they are able to create a truly moving piece of theatre – something that is unfortunately all too rare in both the amateur and professional Sydney theatre scene. This piece has powerful and beautifully imaginary; it is unnerving, terrifying and thought-provoking. And it should not be missed.
Cough is playing at 107 Projects, Redfern until the 20th of April. For more information see: http://unhappen.org/cough