Written by Brendan Cowell
Directed by Wayne Blair
Starring: Toby Schmitz, Roy Billing, Megan Drury, Geoff Morrell, Torquil Neilson, Adrienne Pickering and Toni Scanlan.
There are a few key noises that echo through Company B’s production of Ruben Guthrie- sounds that the audience are very used to hearing in their daily lives. Among them are whisper of an opened beer, the pop of a cork, the gurgle of a glass being poured and the chink of bottles. Each one begins on Jacob Nash’s stunningly simple set, the two walls lined with hundreds of liquor bottles. You see, Ruben Guthrie is about having a drink, or two, or a lot more. It begins with the titular Ruben (Toby Schmitz), a wildly successful advertising wunderkind, as he hits a particularly low note in his life. Pushed by his mother and fiancé, he begins attending AA.
Brendan Cowell’s very funny script is incredibly strong, sometimes a little heavy with scene-to-scene exposition, but never losing focus or momentum. This is due in part to Ruben’s well-drawn network of family and friends. They’ve all something to say on his sobriety, from his fiancé Zoya (Adrienne Pickering), fed up with watching him get sloshed every night, to Virginia (Megan Drury), his AA sponsor, or his best friend Damian (Torquil Neilson), who never stops imploring him to jump off the wagon, right through to his boss Ray (Roy Billing), who holds the drink as the key Ruben’s creative genius. Every one of the ensemble is recognisable in real life to the audience, which is allows Cowell and director Wayne Blair to hit the mark so hard.
Ruben’s monologues are particularly well-crafted, incorporating the right amount of humour and drama, and they’re brought to life by Schmitz’ vibrant performance. Just as well he’s the star – if he weren’t he would completely steal the show with his voice and presence.
It’s very easy to see why Company B decided to bring Ruben Guthrie to the larger upstairs theatre this year after its powerhouse run downstairs last year. The very hard look it takes at Australian attitudes towards drinking is fascinating, as Ruben tries to find a workable midpoint between the constant inebriation of himself before the play’s opening and the almost fanatical sobriety of his AA meetings. But constantly behind him loom the collection of red, white, gin, vodka, rum and scotch, among others. It’s not so much that they (and his family and friends) want him to fail, but much more that they can’t see the problem. “We don’t have to have ten – just have one!” Damian tells him. But Ruben can see the problem – “when did we ever have one?” he shoots back.
Ruben Guthrie is thought provoking and thankfully, it recognises that it’s people, not alcohol who make the practice of drinking insidious when it’s done to excess. Relevant, personal and very down to earth, there is a lot to like here.
You will love it if: you’re a fan of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Not sure if the homage was intentional but the similarities are there.
You will hate it if: you’ve never been driven to the drink.
Ruben Guthrie has just finished its season at Belvoir Street Theatre.