The Almighty Sometimes (Queensland Theatre)
Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre
13 August — 3 September
18-year-old Anna (Melissa Kahraman) has been on medication for so long she can’t remember who she is without it. Whereas once, as a little girl, she was a prodigious writing talent, able to fill hundreds of notebooks with imaginative stories, now, her creativity appears lost to years of pills and prescriptions, provoking her to ponder if her talent was because of the medication or in spite of it. If she wanted to, she could just not take the pills anymore… and discover who she really is.
Anna’s consideration of this, along with the possibilities of having a boyfriend, going to university and alike, are at odds with her mother Renée’s (Rachel Gordon) determination to continue to keep her safe according to her definition. This is what makes Australian playwright Kendall Feaver’s multi-award-winning “The Almighty Sometimes” a family drama… but also much more.
Its appeal also comes from the everydayness within its complex issues of mental illness and consent. It begins with the mundane late-night post-party eats of Anna and Oliver (Wil Bartolo), who has just walked her home. Immediately, their humour engages the audience, without us even realising what characterises its back and forth. Anna is confident and funny against Oliver’s awkward interaction. On ‘the pills’ for seven years now, she has been stable for a long time so is, she thinks, now able to cope with change and deal with stress. But it is also time for her to transition to an adult psychiatrist, so there is a lot going on.
The unfolding story, however, is about identity more than mental illness though as Anna’s diagnosis is never specified. While initially the deliberately elusive mentions of ‘the illness’ and ‘disorder’ are frustrating, before long the need for labels no longer matter as we are enticed into Anna’s story through Feaver’s beautiful writing and the performers’ impeccable interpretations.
The domestic drama is made all the more compelling through the evenly matched performances of Kahraman and Gordon as its mother and daughter protagonists. In her Queensland Theatre debut, Kahraman gives an epic, roller-coaster performance of Anna, authentically transitioning between determination to be independent in desire for agency over her own mind, body and life, and vulnerability at not wanting to be alone in her journey. It’s a powerful commitment of mind, body and soul to present Anna is all of her intelligent, quick-witted wonder and a physical performance, from the full-body dry-heave-of-horror teenage response to a parent’s attempt to instigate awkward conversations, to the emerging extreme behaviour brought about by her disturbing mood swings, confrontingly exposed in a dinner scene in which she makes horrible, hurtful attacks on those closest to her.
As Anna’s long-suffering mother, Gordon, similarly, has a number of big moments in the story, which allow for her to share the raw emotions at the core of Renee’s experience, whether they be of anger, sadness, frustration or fatigue in response to no longer being consulted in conversations about her now-adult daughter’s care. Indeed, she crafts a performance that is heartfelt in its presentation of a mother trying to find balance between desire to care and control.
Bartolo is also impressive in his support. While Oliver’s awkwardness gives us much of Act One’s comic relief, Bartolo layers this with an essential vulnerability, such as when he tries to explain why he doesn’t want Anna coming to his place, giving us a different representation of someone who has been taking care of someone else for their entire life. And his scenes with Gordon, as Renee, are some of the show’s standouts, whether they come by way of an awkward middle-of-the-night kitchen encounter and enquiry as to how things are going with Anna, to, after things worsen, talking about how things have changed.
While Oliver thinks Anna is pretty great… until she isn’t, her composed psychiatrist Vivienne (Luisa Prosser) is prepared to call her out where necessary, knowing her history and little details of her life. And Prosser’s stoicism serves as a valuable contrast to the havoc happening around Anna’s relationships.
After a turbulent trip into interval as Anna’s heat and anger energise into turmoil, Act Two takes us towards an ultimately poignant and emotional conclusion. While a couple of later scenes labour their point a little long, overall the show’s 2 hour 25 minute duration (including interval) flies by in audience engagement.
Simone Romaniuk’s design is appropriately simple to give the cast’s compelling performances a palette against which to shine. Ben Hughes’ lighting design is also aptly full of extremes. Music (including fleeting Fleetwood Mac strains) punctuates revelations to transition us between scenes and emotes events. From the euphoria of Anna and Oliver’s early days together (because when Anna is happy, everything is joyful) to the soundscape of hauntingly oppressive ticking clock sounds that accompany the heaviness of Anna’s despair, Mike Willmett’s composition and sound design, breathes life into every aspect of the story. And, after the lightness and brightness of the first act, even costuming drains the colour from Anna’s life as she retreats more into herself and her re-emerging illness.
Feaver’s debut work is a provocative play, complex but assured, and cleverly crafted in its transitions, through extracts from Anna’s distressing creative writing, and with metaphor of falling interweaved throughout. And Daniel Evans’ direction is appropriately sensitive, so as to have audience members continually shifting in their sympathies.
“The Almighty Sometimes” will break your heart and then warm it back together in the most rewarding of ways, and certainly should not be missed. This compassionate, empathetic telling of what is essentially a family drama about unconditional love in the most difficult of circumstances is powerfully gripping, in its title too, once its relevance is revealed. With such heavy themes, there is of course a darkness within its telling, but also a lot of joy and lightness, such are its ongoing surprises.
Photos c/o – Brett Boardman