Thrashing Against the Script: A Review of Charles O’ Grady’s ‘Telescope’



Words || Cameron Colwell 

“One should always be in love. That’s the reason one should never marry.”

– Oscar Wilde.

Entering Telescope, at the Leichardt Town Hall, I found myself very quickly turning to comparisons to Kaleidoscope, playwright Charles O’ Grady’s earlier play, set in the same fictional universe. I suppose I wanted it to be very similar, considering how much I adored it. However, very quickly, Telescope revealed itself to be a different beast entirely: More complicated, more understated, and, being a duologue rather than a monologue, more room with which to fail.

Joss and Vic, its protagonists, are described in the play’s synopsis as “Good Aussie parents,” currently struggling with the absence of their son, Jeremy, who has recently come out as transgender. Vic, played by Shevvi Barrett-Brown, is a hard-working, no-nonsense father, and Joss, played by Caillin McKay, is concerned but overbearing mother, very much doing her best with her son, but often her attempts at reconciliation are touched with a condescending tone.The play’s conflict derives from not only their disagreements, but by the constraining way they love one another: The warmth in their relationship is felt occasionally, but at other times, you wonder if these people love each other at all.

Of course, only about half the time Joss and Vic are discussing their son does it feel like they’re actually talking about him. The dialogue cleverly reflects a very specific middle-class wariness of certain issues, a kind of shallowness…Not until the climax does it seem the characters have learned how to directly address things. O’ Grady’s script offers the same cutting, satirical observations seen in Kaleidoscope, although, occasionally in the earlier scenes of the play, the dialogue falls victim to the tendency for ‘issue plays’ to make characters sound as if their dialogue is a series of quotations from a social studies textbook.

Also, the bite and depth of some of the lines was undermined by the actor’s occasional lapses, and moments where they repeated or seemed to forget their lines. There was a certain inconsistency in both roles: Barrett-Brown, who played Vic in my viewing (The characters alternate gender each week), was very accurate as the haughty, overworked nurse, but failed to convince at some of the crucial moments of the escalating drama between the characters. Despite the occasional misstep, however, flashes of brilliance more than make up for these slight shortcomings. McKay, for instance, absolutely nailed the performance of an ostensibly progressive mother wanting to learn about her son’s gender identity.  One brilliant, much-laughed-at conversation about the possibility that Jeremy will have a penis surgically created from his elbow fat, comes to mind.

When I interviewed Charles about the play, I got a sense that Telescope, and the larger theatrical universe it is apart of, would be very experimental, in that he told me he was trying out a bunch of different genres. The effect of this kind of experimentation is some moments fall flat. Some scenes, for instance, feel like repetitive padding of earlier arguments between the couple, with some of the details changed. Still, unlike a lot of modern theatre, Telescope takes a lot of risks, and, at its best, offers a brutal, harrowing deconstruction of the generic Australian kitchen-sink drama. The heteronormative script that underpins the genre is constantly felt, as a kind of constraint on what the characters can say and not say. Unlike similar media involving queerphobic parents, both are portrayed with an empathy that never legitimises their casual bigotry, such as Vic’s constant misgendering of his son.

It feels sadly pertinent that this wild, wonderful play, directed, starring, and written by young people, opened during a week in which arts funding for young people has been so severely slashed. The program references this, saying “our thoughts go to those artists let with a murky future by the brutal cuts made to the arts this week.” The fact is, Telescope offers the kind of forward-thinking, norm-challenging, soul-enriching artistry that we need right now, that artists can only continue to offer with some support: Therefore, I urge you to see it.

Telescope will be running between the 12th and 21st of May, as part of Sight and Sound Arts 2016.

Tickets can be purchased at the Montague Theatre Basement website, and cost $20 for an adult ticket and $15 for a concession ticket.


Photography by Omnes Photgraphy