Music by numbers

Adding Machine (Underground Production)

Schonell Theatre

September 6 – 13

Everyone has their breaking point and for Mr Zero it is 25 years of mediocrity in life, work and marriage. And upon learning that he has been replaced by an adding machine, the anti-hero murders his boss in a vengeful rage. This is not a musical geared towards optimism, however, in its Australasian premiere, it is one presented as a delightful mixture of the bleak and the comical.

Adapted from Elmer Rice’s 1923 expressionist allegory, “Adding Machine” presents a simple enough narrative. Episodic scenes reveal the underlying stress points in Zero’s life: first his wife, then his workplace, where his boss states that, after 25 years in the same job (the same spot in fact), he is being replaced, not promoted.

It begins with “Something To Be Proud Of”, a surly, shouty and shrill opening number by Gabriella Flowers, as bitter wife Mrs Zero, unhappy in her life, lost dreams and loveless marriage. However, things soon improve with “Harmony, Not Discord”, a memorable musical expression of workplace tedium where Zero and his male associates mutter their daydreams aloud as their female assistants read out long streams of numbers in counterpoint rhythms. It is a number that is impressive in its musical precision, testament to the ensemble’s skills and enthralling to experience. Before long, the inventive and eclectic score has changed to follow Zero’s journey to the afterlife in the Elysian Fields where he is met with one last chance for romance and redemption.

In this Underground Production’s realisation, “Adding Machine” delivers, albeit intermittently. Staging is interesting, with askew furniture appearing like post-impressionist realisations (think ‘Van Gogh’s chair’) and clever use of lighting to create shadows and silhouettes, often as additional characters. Ultimately, however, it falls short of the piece’s possibilities. To have the initial action set so far back on the spacious Schonell Theatre stage does little to assist with audience engagement, especially comparative to the intimacy achieved when Act Two action moves forward.

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Music by Numbers? “Adding Machine” is a difficult show to describe and an even more difficult experience to evaluate. It is savage and satirical in its humour, but carries with it a mournful message about mankind’s state. Part socialist rant, part existential contemplation, the play has always been difficult to define. It is not the escapist type musical of most popular favour, but as a show of murder, racism and suicide, it makes no promises to be anything but what it is.

No one’s worthy of audience affection in this nightmare story, but therein lies its appeal, because this is a tale of ordinary (albeit exaggerated), rather than idealised, characters. And it is the performances that bring these characters to life. As the denigrated and overlooked protagonist, Chris Kellet gives a strong and convincing performance as Zero. Taylor Davidson, too, as Daisy, is endearing in her musical lamentations and daydreams about Zero (who remains impassive to her doe-eyed adoration).

I’ve seen shows I’ve immediately loved, some I’ve only liked, some I’ve disliked and others that I’ve absolutely hated from the first number. But “Adding Machine” doesn’t fall distinctly into any of these categories. Rather, it just… happened. And bizarre as it was, I think I’m glad it did.

Photo c/o – https://www.facebook.com/UndergroundBrisbane

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