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Theatre Review: The House on the Lake

The House on the Lake: The Stables Theatre until June 20th

by Aidan Fennessy

Director: Kim Hardwick

Photo by Brett Boardman

The Griffin Theatre Company has always been a favourite because it produces new Australian plays and consistently comes up with the goods.

So how is this latest offering?

The House on the Lake, a psychological thriller, is a two-hander set in a small, sparsely furnished room. David wakes up and is unable to remember what happened the day before. With the help of Alice the psychologist, they begin to coax memories out of the darkness.

What were the circumstances that led him to this frustrating predicament?

Why is he experiencing post-trauma amnesia?

What caused the trauma?

Where is the psychologist going with her questioning?

What really happened on that fateful night?

Can you trust the accounts of the three lawyers at the middle of the main plot?

According to Aidan Fennessy, his purpose as playwright was to “engage an audience with an intricate narrative using only two actors and one setting. I was also keen on playing with genre. In a narrative like this, you need to mask a lot of information but not too much as you risk leaving the audience too far behind for too long. It’s also a narrative that relies as much on what is said as what is not said. Crime narrative will always, eventually, concern itself with the truth and theatre is the perfect platform in which to examine the binary oppositions of truth and lying. The great paradox of theatre is that it is a tightly constructed lie designed to reveal truth. Like any audience, the task here is to track just when, what, who, how and why. Just as in real life, our psychic, social, emotional and sometimes physical survival depends on our ability to detect lies as well as the truth. It’s been estimated that we can now expect to be lied to between 10 and 200 times on any given day.”

So much for the theory. How did they execute?

The House on the Lake is one of the best written plays I’ve seen in a while. Fennessy obviously did some research into Jungian psychology and philosophy, Rogerian psychology, the Socratic Method and interrogation procedures, and his experience in various areas of theatre led him to the punctuations in emotion and suspense.

The excellent writing is complemented by the direction of Kim Hardwick who has guided the plot with, and when appropriate, without, subtlety. The ninety minutes without an intermission allows for the continuity necessary to sustain momentum.

Of course, critical to any two-hander are the actors. When both are seen by the audience for the duration, there is nowhere to hide, and each actor must be entirely mentally and emotionally present at all times.

As David, English actor Huw Higginson compels us to travel with him on his journey of confusion, frustration, sorrow, regret, anger and some unexpected emotions. This is a riveting performance from a skilled and experienced actor.

Then there’s Alice the psychologist. Jeanette Cronin, who has been a consistently strong character actor since I first saw her on stage in 1988, showcases her versatility in playing an intelligent, clinically professional woman with an element of glamour. I deliberately avoided looking at the programme and reading the media release before attending this production, and didn’t recognise Cronin at first, with her unfamiliar appearance. It’s the first time I’d seen her in an almost seductive role without a hint of comedy.

Cronin and Higginson are superb in playing each other, playing off each other and advancing a twisting plot that includes some dead ends and red herrings. I was totally involved.

On this Sydney Chic site, I really only type reviews for the productions that are worth experiencing, and there is plenty to be positive about in the Sydney theatre scene. The House on the Lake at The Stables should be one production at the top of your list.

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