Perth theatre collective The Last Great Hunt is consistently producing work that is fresh, authentic and innovative. They first reeled me in with It’s Dark Outside a few years back and I have been hooked ever since, hoping they will remount their older works so I can have another chance to catch them at the theatre.
Asking universally relatable questions and weaving elements of magic realism and sci-fi into their work gives it a sense of whimsy and a feeling that anything is possible. Their latest venture, premiering at the State Theatre Centre, is Improvement Club, which has been described as ‘Being John Malkovich meets The Office’.
Written and directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler, and performed by Gita Bezard, Arielle Gray, Chris Isaacs, Frieda Lee and Mararo Wangai, it’s a surreal, provocative work about authenticity, our collective power to change the world, and the stories we tell ourselves. And it’s set in an office.
One day Adam (Chris Isaacs) has the greatest idea he’s ever had in his life. He will begin a club with the singular goal of improving. He somehow gets members to join him, but very quickly realises there is a problem – he doesn’t really know what improvement means, and soon finds himself out of the club.
We’re all faced with the pressure of so-called continuous improvement, of becoming the best we can be. But what is improvement at its core, if not a chance for a do-over? So we follow Adam through a variety of scenarios, in which we get to know him better, and he gradually becomes not only less likeable but quite insidious and pathetic.
We see in him someone lacking self-awareness, empathy and compassion, in spite of his desire for self-improvement. Chris Isaacs, himself a writer, brings a gift for comedic timing and a certain sensitivity to his interpretation of the role of Adam and his vulnerabilities.
Arielle Gray deftly plays a trio of female figures in Adam’s life with all of her usual charm. Bezard, Lee and Wangai bring an exuberant energy and optimistic outlook, not to mention gender and cultural diversity to the story. “Is this a diversity thing?”, asks the hapless Adam. Turns out it’s not easy being a straight white male.
With trademark razor-sharp wit, Fowler guides us through a fun night at the theatre into the realms of race, gender and identity politics, as well as touching on themes of mental health. The literal and metaphorical lion in the room is beautifully and elegantly played by Mararo Wangai.
As an allegory for society, Improvement Club sets the scene and then continually tears it down until we are left wondering, is this what we have become?
“It’s a very funny play – and it is laden with jokes – but when you look at the ideas beneath it, they’re pretty real. Good comedy’s always truthful… I want to feel other people’s laughter and know we’re all in it together, we’re all feeling this.” – Jeffrey Jay Fowler
The set, prop and costume design by emerging Production Designer Sally Phipps transports us into a world reminiscent of a technology start-up such as Google, with two weeks’ worth of research into partitions resulting in some colourful set pieces, allowing for multiple entry and exit points on stage, which are used to great effect to keep the action moving.
This is a freshly devised, timely piece of theatre that is entertaining, thought-provoking and perplexing – one which merits much after-show conversation and more than one viewing.
Improvement Club plays at the State Theatre of Western Australia until 7 July. Get tickets.
Read our interview with writer and director Jeffrey Jay Fowler from 2014 here.
Images: Daniel James Grant