A man standing, awoken suddenly in the middle of the night, still in his pajamas, leans forward. Really far forward. The shift in his centre of gravity should send him tumbling forward. A middle aged man caught between impulses – to stay still and to respond. It’s as if his heart is pulling him forward, but his feet can’t follow. A phone is ringing. He leans further forward. Impossibly. And answers the phone.
Things I Know to be True is a story about family, and much has been made of the family depicted and whether or not their experiences are universal. In a co-production of an Australian text by UK (Frantic Assembly) and Australian (State Theatre Company of South Australia) companies it’s unsurprising that there are distinct detailed experiences, but Andrew Bovell’s text is convincing in conveying a kind of universal experience, as it elegizes a baby boomer constructed notion of a nuclear family. It doesn’t have to be your experience because you’ve watched The Simpsons – it’s a powerful meme, and Bovell holds it up, full of successes and flaws, and ritually kills it.
Fran and Bob Price’s four children provide the structure to the piece, as each of them comes to their parents with a difficult problem – one which shows up both the strength of their parents’ influence over them, and the limits of those various parents’ capabilities. Fran is ready to help eldest daughter Pip with the kids if she leaves her husband, but doesn’t know how to react when she says she is leaving her husband and children for a job and a lover in Vancouver. Fran and Bob are both ready to support son Mark coming out, and are completely unsupportive and unprepared when he instead announces he has gender dysphoria.
These episodes focus attention on the details of Fran and Bob’s relationship, their long marriage, their many years of work paying off a mortgage and providing for their kids, their protectiveness and its cruelty, and the aptly-named Prices’ financial understanding and its incompatibility with the economic world that their children live in – even with each other, as it’s revealed that Fran has kept a get-out (or fuck-off) fund from Bob for years, which has grown into a sizeable pot. Imogen Stubbs and Ewan Stewart offer up detailed performances that feel thoroughly lived-in – they take each new event in their stride, and the fear in Fran’s face as she worries that Bob is growing old too fast for her, urging him to slow down, and stay with her, is a moving one. They have both worked so hard for a pay-off which is under threat on all sides: by their children, by change where they expected stability, by their own ages.
This big story – taking us deep into the lifespans and up to the crossroads of each of the main characters – is supported by a production that uses well-oiled movement to represent the familiarity and unconscious patterns of this nuclear family. They lift each other up as they address the audience in long, personal monologues, and slide chairs and tables across the stage to accommodate each other.
Whilst having more interesting things to say about its female characters and the relationship between mothers and daughters, Things I Know to be True resembles Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in the way it takes a single setting over a relatively short period of time and lets it hold within it any place that the characters needs to go – especially into their own memories. Set largely in the garden that becomes the world to each of the characters – tended by Bob, paced in by an anxious Fran, and remembered as the venue for Pip’s marriage – the play’s design is expressionist in its time and place with Geoff Cobham’s hundreds of individual bulbs hanging at different heights glowing like a starfield above the stage, connected (maybe even related) but also unique.
The youngest sibling’s tale – Rosie’s – has less to offer up in critique or comment on Bob and Fran’s relationship, but she is presented as our entry point to the family and the narrative. In fact she is an unnecessary kind of frame to the action, returning home with her heart broken but sure of number one in her list of things she knows to be true: that her parents and her garden will always be the same. It’s more hand-holding than we need, in a big play that teeters on the edge of melodrama, where everything is writ almost too large, that has a sleeker, rougher and perhaps angrier play hiding inside it, ready to really snarl at Bob and Fran, before falling forward, crying, into their arms.
Things I know To Be True is on until 1st October 2016 at the Lyric Hammersmith. For more details, click here.