Tom Machell’s self-penned solo show Ticker is a smartly written and charismatically performed look at grief, love and toxic masculinity packed with sharp lines and black humour.
Sitting in his girlfriend’s favourite coffee shop, a dishevelled Spencer (Machell) waits to meet her, oddly ignoring his ringing phone. Slowly, the story of their romance unfolds – how he was smitten by the clever, funny American girl – before taking a much darker turn. Because the lovely Gabi is dead, we learn: did Spencer, sitting there looking guilty and sporting a black eye, have anything to do with her death?
Co-developed with director Derek Anderson, Ticker has plenty to recommend it. Machell is an engaging performer: beneath Spencer’s aimable exterior there are cracks aplenty, and Machell handles the switches of tone deftly. The tension ratchets up over a tightly played hour, and Machell has a gift for witty observations and dark humour that means the action never sags. It’s also a show with faultless intentions, highlighting a medical condition that Machell obviously cares deeply about (an undiagnosed heart condition that, he tells us in a post-show speech, claimed the life of one of his friends – the production is partnering with a heart charity to encourage young people to get tested.)
Impressively slick as it is, though, Ticker is not without flaws. The absent Gabi comes across less as a person than a combination of quirks, a manic pixie dream girl who only feels genuinely real when we see that she is scared of the man who is eulogising her. It’s also way too keen on the cheap laughs – Gabi’s friend Michael is given a campy, prissy voice that we are clearly meant to be amused by (“he doesn’t really sound like that, but I don’t like him”, we are told). And I had hoped to live a long, happy life without ever hearing another ‘comic’ story about a Thai woman who turns out to have a penis, but no, apparently, I don’t get to have that.
It’s arguable, of course, these flaws are the narrator’s, not the show’s – Spencer is exactly the type of man to carve his ex’s life into palatable personality titbits to dole out to an appreciative audience, and to mine the easy jokes to get the listener onside. But I don’t think Ticker is rigorous enough in the examination of what it does to justify the fact that it’s doing it.
So perhaps the reason I found it impossible to warm to was ultimately less about the piece itself, but more about the theatrical tradition it sits in, and never quite manages to transcend. The world is full of violent, entitled men who can’t cope with women having the autonomy to leave them, and it’s valid and necessary to examine why that is, but well-meaning as it is, Ticker doesn’t add anything to the discussion.
It’s an oft-repeated phrase, but toxic masculinity is the background radiation of most women’s lives – and if I’m going to spend yet another hour in its company, I want a compelling reason to do so. But Ticker is just too slight to provide it. A show that illustrates how a straight white guy belittles other men by assigning them camp accents and trades comedy stories about Thai girls with penises for easy lolz is still a show where we’re encouraged to laugh at effeminate accents and the thought of girls with dicks. A play that examines how a man makes a woman’s death all about him still ends up being a play where a man makes a woman’s death all about him. Don’t we have enough of those stories already?
Ticker runs at the Alphabetti Theatre until 23rd November. More info here.