REVIEW: This is Living by Ash Flanders

We’re told, by film and television, that a crisis can bring people together and make their relationship stronger. From home renovation shows to bleak dramas, most of the time we’re led to believe that trauma is a good building block. You work together to overcome an obstacle and there’s champagne and laughs at the other end.

Ash Flanders’ This is Living is the funnier and more truthful version of this kind of story. There are champagne and laughs in the middle – but the end is much less certain.

The play is based on his own experience of his partner going in and out of hospital for cancer treatment in 2020 and their retreat to the country with three middle-aged women to see in the new year.

Ash’s work has always been darkly funny – from the chaotic queer energy of his Sisters Grimm productions with Declan Greene to his one-man shows that reckoned with his family and his personal life. But in this play about him and his partner, the character who stands in for him, Will, is probably the least funny of the five people on this holiday. What do you do when the funny just goes?

Will (Wil King) and Hugh (Marcus McKenzie) arrive at a rental house in Hepburn Springs ahead of their female friends and Will is at Hugh’s beck-and-call. Early on, before we know about Hugh’s illness, it comes off as more bickering couple than anything sinister. We’re being eased into a relationship comedy with a chosen family dealing with the ins-and-outs of their middle-class lives.

But then we discover Hugh has a fever coming on and if his temperature reaches 38, he’ll have to go straight to hospital. His immune system is shot from the cancer treatment. This weekend away might be his last new year.

Their stresses and quarrels are lessened with the arrival of Alex (Belinda McClory), a TV presenter who is about to change jobs from a travel show to an escape room game show called No Exit.

In amongst all the light pop-culture references, an allusion to Sartre’s play was welcome. “Hell is other people” he claimed, but here – though they are all “trapped” by different circumstances, the other people on the trip are the help they all need.

Next to arrive is Jo (Maria Theodorakis), a university teacher who wants to help one student so badly, she hasn’t been able to switch her phone off over Christmas and, now, New Year.

And finally, turning up much later in the action, Sharleen (Michelle Perera), who was recently divorced and is the only one out of the cohort to have a kid. “As a mother,” she is fond of saying and the rest are fond of making fun of her for.

Will and Hugh are at each other’s throats – Will not knowing how to care for someone who doesn’t want him around anymore. The women, too, are all torn between lifting each other up and tearing each other down. There’s a lot of history between all of them, making them perfect foils for each other.

But in-between all the fighting, there’s true care for one another. Ash doesn’t shy away from friends finding friends annoying at times, because the play wants to remind us that we’re all flawed; fuck-ups that need friends to tell us when we’re fucking up.

Knowing that this play is effectively an Ash Flanders memoir cements this in truth; it is incisive in its commentary and satire of dating (at all ages), relationships (on the rise and on the fall), celebrity and what happens when your life doesn’t turn out like you’d hoped.

The ensemble cast are five equals on stage; their repartee is a joy to watch throughout. All three women get mic-drop moments late in the play which elicited laughter and applause on opening night but Wil King and Marcus McKenzie keep everything much more grounded. This is not to say their relationship is all bleak, but it is the toughest to negotiate – and they mostly prompted tears and sighs of recognition.

Ash’s script keeps all of this in balance and director Matthew Lutton knows how to guide the performers through the ever-shifting tones of the piece. It’s a real gift to watch magnificent actors spar with each other, landing blows that are both serious and side-splitting.

If This is Living is the most traditional of Ash’s plays, it is no less accomplished - playing naturalism for all its joys and absurdities and being truthful throughout its two halves and five-act structure. It’s an hilarious, poignant ode to friendship and a warning that trauma might be something you work through rather than a foundation to build on.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

This is Living is living at Malthouse until July 30th.

Photos: Pia Johnson