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REVIEW: Surprise Party with Jem & Dead Max, La Mama Courthouse

Surprise Party with Jemma and Dead Max
Photo by Connor Tomas O'Brien

Recently, La Mama theatre in Carlton celebrated its 50th Anniversary of staging and producing innovative, diverse, independent theatre in Melbourne. It is supportive of all range of artists, from newcomers to old-hands and you never know what you are going to get when you visit either of its two spaces in Faraday Street or at the Courthouse.

As La Mama enters its second fifty years, there’s a surprise party happening, in a new play by Georgia Symons. The play has been assisted in its creation by a Hot Desk Fellowship at the Wheeler Centre, followed by a development as part of The Kiln at Arts Centre Melbourne.

We’ve all arrived at parties on time or a little late only to find the hosts are still setting up and that’s the case here. Jem (Anna Kennedy) needs help hanging streamers and blowing up balloons and the audience is happy to help; we’re welcomed into a festive space and pleased to have been invited.

As the title of the play suggests, the surprise party is for Jem’s close friend Max (Christian Taylor), who is dead. He would have been twenty-one-years-old today, if he’d survived the fatal head-on collision with a truck. But enough with the sadness, let’s get on with celebrating a very full life.

Jem and Max were close friends at high school; they attended parties and went on school camp and saw movies together. Jem makes a game out of reminiscing about their friendship, sending Max on a kind of treasure hunt around her house to find mementos of their time together.

The play mostly focuses on these two friends hanging out and having fun talking about old times – even if Max’s scars from the accident are clearly visible throughout. Hey, if he’s not worried about his early death, why should we be? Let’s have fun watching them having fun!

And there’s a lot of joy in seeing Kennedy and Taylor inhabit these energy-filled teenagers jumping around the stage, dancing and singing and drinking like there’s no such thing as a hangover. Only late in the play do we get much of a sense of danger, when Jem’s drink is spiked, though the play makes it clear she’s hiding something from Max throughout.

There’s a darker, more complicated surprise at the heart of Surprise Party. It’s about grief, of course, but not simply about the death of a friend, but about the death of friendship. What can we say to people who slip out of our lives? Where do we put our anger and outrage when they aren’t around to yell at any more?

There’s some strong dramatic stuff towards the end, though the overly complicated staging by director Iris Gaillard robs us of a smooth way into the story. For all the energy of the cast, there’s too much stage craft and “business”; we should be connecting more with these characters than watching them deal with dozens of props and many sets of chairs. These choices bog down the reveals in the closing minutes of the play.

Anna Kennedy’s Jem is a welcoming presence and makes us feel comfortable before pulling the rug out from under us. Her character is easier to get a grip on than the deliberately mercurial Max. Christian Taylor has the harder job, being as much Jem’s memory of Max as he is Max himself.

Symons’ script is layered and knotty and the story she’s really telling isn’t clear until the end, but it might feel better if it felt more like an inevitability than a surprise twist.


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