Australian writer Stephen House spent time in Ireland on a writing fellowship. His “semi-autobiographical” style has processed this into Almost Face to Face – a tale of Dublin where people use booze and drugs by night and hide from uncomfortable truths by day.
Some might know House for his plays such as Miss Blossom Callahan. Almost Face to Face was a monologue performed by House, which also concerned itself with people on the fringes. Some unnecessary flourishes of movement aside, House was capable in his performance. Yet, overall it’s a piece of work that doesn’t distinguish itself.
The work has some nice turns of phrase and descriptive passages, yet I’ve spent quite some time wondering about why it was unsatisfying. I suspect it’s because but it doesn’t strive to give us a substantially new view of the world.
House’s characters spent their time exchanging sex acts for cash, or partying with drugs and hooking up. But this is no Trainspotting; no-one overdosed, no-one even got crabs. The one violent incident at a pub could have happened to anyone just because violence happens where drunk people are. Perhaps the action seemed somewhat bowdlerised?
I felt that we were invited to feel sympathy for the characters as their lives didn’t match up with ours. Suppose you didn’t quickly jump to pity, and entertained the idea that the characters were exploring an alternative life to that of, say, a 9-to-5 wage slave. In that case, the work is really a series of escapades.
The large landlady Miss Ellie May O’Grady was better drawn than other characters. Otherwise, the work lacks hints that would allow us to understand whether the characters were trapped, for example, by the status of their birth, or the capitalist tendency towards winners and losers. We may have this insight if we were familiar with Dublin, but surely it’s the job of the writer to adequately set the scene.
Only our narrator reaches an insight that the party has to end sooner or later, and that it’s time to make a change. However, the conclusion echoed something that seemed very familiar at the time, and on reflection I’ve read similar in places like Elizabeth Harrower’s novel The Watchtower, or watched it in the film Salaam Bombay!, but in those instances it was better motivated. Even the scene where the monologue’s title was used felt like a weak contrivance. Overall the work felt a bit too long, and it could shed some of the duplications in description that don’t advance the story.
Perhaps there was a time when accounts of those on the margins as in Almost Face to Face would have troubled the comfortably naïve middle-class theatre-goers. In Melbourne of 2018 where there’s always more begging on the streets and high profile stories about homeless people being moved on, this light sketch of people who lean on substances doesn’t rise above being a diverting hour.
Almost Face to Face
The Butterfly Club (downstairs), 5 Carson Place, Melbourne
Performance: Tuesday 8 May 2018 – 6.00pm
Season continues to 12 May 2018
Information and Bookings: www.thebutterflyclub.com
Image: Stephen House (supplied)
Review: Jason Whyte