Family dysfunction and divorce played for laughs

Johnny Nasser, Linda Cropper, Guy Simon and John Bell (left to right) in Sydney Theatre Company’s "Grand Horizons". Photo: Prudence Upton/supplied.

Review: Grand Horizons, Ros Packer Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, Walsh Bay – Thursday, 24 February, 2022. Reviewed by editor-at-large Gary Nunn.

★★★★

Boasting one of the best opening scenes in a play I’ve seen in a very long time, Grand Horizons begins with the raising of the curtain at a glacial pace. It is thrilling; it captures the steady yet monotonous, stultifying daily trudge of married life as our couple approach 80. Infinite patience is required. 

It forces you to take in every last detail of Renée Mulder’s marvellously bland set: the identical domestic setting of any assisted living complex. It’s cosy yet generic, and it’s completely perfect. It also sets up a genuinely hilarious reveal moment in act two; one of many in this thoroughly entertaining comedy about a dysfunctional family.

The slow curtain raise isn’t the only thrill in the play’s promising start. 

The silent, meticulously choreographed performance of the couple’s routine at dinner time is ingenious; the elderly pace; the known idiosyncrasies; the way the couple moves around each other preparing the table with a resigned respect, full of repetitive routine and muted kindness, yet devoid of all intimacy and passion. 

These moments continue to punctuate the play. Seemingly pedestrian tasks like making a sandwich are imbued in ritual, one which encompasses all the nonverbal nuances of kindness, duty, resignation and borderline suffocation – a masterstroke of Jessica Arthur’s direction.

Retired librarian Nancy French (Linda Cropper) speaks the first, devastatingly polite yet assertive words of the play, telling her husband Bill (John Bell) that she’d like a divorce. His response – “alright” – is hilariously compliant. It sets the tone for two people who, perhaps, after a long, seemingly stable marriage, have never truly ‘seen’ each other. 

John Bell (left) and Linda Cropper play the elderly couple at the centre of Grand Horizons. Photo: Prudence Upton/supplied.

The couple’s two adult children are having none of it; a crisis family meeting is called, one which descends into chaos as the elderly couple attempt to go about their lives and their separation with a frustrating nonchalance. It’s the classic theatrical set up for any modern comedy on family dysfunction, and it’s played for laughs. 

Ben (Johnny Nasser) and his pregnant wife Jess (Vaishnavi Suryaprakash) try to keep things pragmatic – at first – with psychologist Jess using stereotypical couple’s counselling techniques. At first, you get the sense that writer Bess Wohl is satirising such touchy feely cringeworthy interventions – especially unsolicited ones, as Jess’s are. But in an age of Esther Perel, this sits differently, and the handholding/‘speak aloud your desires’ tactics come to be adopted by Bill and Nancy by the end of the play, transforming the tone from comic to nuanced. It works: an undercurrent of deeper truths gently runs below less sophisticated gags. You laugh, then you think. 

The laughs come first, though, with younger son Brian (Guy Simon) – a gay, anxious drama school teacher, sulking at his parents’ impending and baffling divorce. He tries to distract himself with a one-night stand whilst staying at their place, but it takes a hilariously awkward wrong turn. Later, he sides with his antagonist, the older brother who bullied him and can’t seem to atone for it. Guy Simon’s postures, and sulky reactions as his brother implores the weary couple to stay together, are fantastically played for maximum comic effect.

The laughs intensify in act two as Bill’s mistress, Carla, visits for a counterintuitively friendly chat with Nancy, who assures her love rival she’s actually doing her a favour; Nancy’s heart, we discover, has all this time been elsewhere. The longing is tangible and the two women’s interaction, whilst funny, is gently poignant without being didactic. 

We get to the nub as Bill and Nancy finally begin to articulate to one another what it is they truly want; beyond Bill’s curious foray into stand-up comedy and Nancy’s well-meaning white saviourism of ensuring refugees have the second hand clothes of pensioners around the ironically named Grand Horizons complex. 

The alliteratively named boys of the family – Bill, Ben and Brian – haven’t yet matured enough for us to call them men. Bill, played with understated brilliance by John Bell, can’t (or at least doesn’t) cook for himself. Brian believes the divorce to be all about him, and his emotional needs; brother Ben’s child-like breakdown at not being able to call his partner ‘baby’ reveals a similarly infantilised psyche. The two sons refuse to let their mother leave the philandering dad who has never bothered to learn how to feed himself. Despite the laughs, it’s difficult to see this as anything other than imprisonment of a woman who, in her senior years, desires liberation.

Despite the laughs, Grand Horizons is largely the story of a woman in her senior years (Nancy French, played by Linda Cropper, pictured) who desires liberation. Photo: Prudence Upton/supplied.

It’s when Nancy – with the gently supercilious support of Jess – finally begins to find her voice to explore and discover what her desires are – that the male characters, after sulking, start then growing around her and then, away from their idea of her. As they do, she’s able to redefine what they mean to her, and who she is, on her own terms, in her eighties. 

It may not contain the same dramatic heft as Nora’s exit from A Doll’s House, but it’s every bit as gratifying.

Grand Horizons concludes on Saturday, March 5, 2022 at the Ros Packer Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, Walsh Bay. For tickets and further information, visit www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2022/grand-horizons.

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.

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