An order appears on an overhead screen towards the end of Morgan Rose’s new play, Fast Food. ‘F*ck this (no onions)’, it reads. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more succinct summary of this wryly absurd production – Rose’s second collaboration with Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre.
Her first, desert, 6:29pm, considered the malaise of a lower middle-class family. Characters escaped into fantasy scenarios to dwell on unsaid desires and so escape the repressive confines of familial obligation. These reveries offered dramatically rich territory, expressing withheld secrets, past traumas, and often darkly humorous confessions.
Where desert, 6:29pm oriented these fantasies around familial dynamics, Fast Food uses them to encounter the equally repressive scriptures of hospitality work. While ambitious and often hilarious, the show lacks the momentum and focus that propelled its predecessor.
It’s another day in a non-descript burger joint; the ordering kiosks are broken, the barbecue sauce missing and whoever closed last night has spilled coke in the salad trough. Manager Troy (Kevin Hofbauer) is the first to enter, boasting the kind of unbridled pep that hides an authoritarian attention to detail. River (Chi Nguyen) is Assistant Manager and an aspiring piano player with a robotic social ability that can only be learned at Corporate Training.
G (Isha Menon) is the calmly disenfranchised Zoomer with a Sims addiction, Leonard (Casey Filips) the nurse with dreams of a beach-side vacation and Rosemary (Ella Caldwell) the recent divorcee struggling to re-join the workforce. Each of these characters comes to work with personal baggage in tow and no time to unpack it. No wonder they escape into daydream.
Soon enough and the assembly line transforms at the behest of their individual fantasies. A polished countertop becomes a rescue boat, a saucing station the site of a sexual fantasy, and an empty bin a fire pit on a desert island. There is considerable pressure on lighting and sound design to signal these fantastical intrusions.
Thankfully, Lighting Designer Giovanna Yate Gonzalez and Sound Designer Danni Esposito rise to the occasion. A flash of crimson red and an oceanic soundscape transport us immediately to a beachside phantasm and serve as testament to a team working harmoniously to make these movements between fantasy and reality appear effortless. All the while, a near-constant Gothic undertone characterises the workplace with a teasing, if perhaps underutilised, sense of menace.
With such an emphasis on fantasy, there is much for this talented team of actors to sink their teeth into. As the perpetually nervous Rosemary, Ella Caldwell is easily the most affecting. Yet, as with desert, 6:29pm, Caldwell is given an outsider narrative arc that is teasingly underdeveloped.
Chi Nguyen’s River delivers a slew of cringe-worthy missteps before retreating into erotic reverie. Her trajectory in the show is the closest we get to a complete character arc, and Nguyen moves with the complex beats of this arc well. As Leonard, Casey Filips is perhaps most attune to the rhythms of Rose’s style of dialogue, moving between deadpan delivery and calm empathy with splashes of absurdism in between. There is a temptation in actors to render Rose’s absurdist style melodramatic.
Thankfully director Bridget Balodis shows a knowing restraint that never compromises the playfulness of Rose’s writing by over-blocking scenes or exaggerating delivery. Set Designer, Sophie Woodward has constructed an entire assembly line in the tight quarters of Red Stitch Theatre, making the risk of exaggeration and of crowding the space ever present. But then, the claustrophobia of such close-quarters is an apt representation of the confining proximity of this workplace, and so all the more reason for an escape into fantasy.
At best, the fantastical flourishes that characterise Fast Food offer a nuanced critique of the machinic mindlessness required of frontline workers, and so an affecting inditement of the ways contemporary labour dilutes personhood. At worst, they compromise the strength and focus of this critique.
The problem is simply one of scope. Each individual fantasy is tied to a specific experience. Troy, a long-time vegetarian, sees the world transformed according to his climate anxieties. Rosemary exhumes a figure from her childhood to offer emotional support. River plays out a long-held crush. In this, the fantasies are distinctly subjective.
But the backdrop onto which these individual fantasies are staged is teasingly conceptual, at times even systemic – labour, climate crisis, the meat-industrial complex, queer desire. As individual fantasies converge, we lose track of the personal stakes that motivated them, as well as the conceptual frameworks that they speak to. Put another way – there is a reality behind the fantasy that the show, even in the midst of its absurdity, seems invested in.
When an injury closes the restaurant in the end, reality rushes in. But, if there are emotive stakes to this conclusion – and, it seems, there are meant to be – they have been lost in translation. Clarity is never a prerequisite to effectiveness, especially in a play like this. Yet, seeing a character’s dreams crushed with bloody fanfare, as is the case with the ending of Fast Food, and having little sense of what one is meant to feel about it, is a problem.
At 110 minutes, the play drags its feet. Characters fall into long-winded monologues and cursory subplots, while absurd vignettes return with increasingly less effectiveness. A furrowed brow of confusion soon transforms to apathy, incredulity to impatience. The feeling is perhaps not too dissimilar to that of being on the assembly line – the emotional flatness another damning evocation of the gig economy.
A manager discovers his dead brother, a life-long piano player injures her hand, and a forty-four-year-old divorcee laments a lost love while a cow reprimands a carnivore and a My Little Pony screams a motivational speech. Existing side by side, these scenes are stripped of their potency and dulled of emotive stakes.
Confessionals that would endear us to characters are lost in the fray. Such is the reality of contemporary labour, perhaps. But Rose does not appear so cynical. These fantasies are eventually shared among the group; these absurdities connect and bring them together.
There is a sense of hopefulness to them, then, one that the play’s humour complements well. Is it human connection that answers the problem of workplace drudgery? Or is the allure of an answer just another fantasy that must be dispelled? Fast Food seems unsure, either way.
Morgan Rose remains a singular talent in Australian theatre and her style of ambitious, formally playful theatre is, even in its missteps, utterly compelling. Should Fast Food return to the assembly line, per se, I wonder how it may better specify its focus. I’d certainly be the first in line for a second serving, should it return.
Red Stitch Theatre, Rear 2 Chapel Street, St Kilda East
Performance: Wednesday 18 May 2022
Season continues to 5 June 2022
Information and Bookings: www.redstitch.net
Image: Ella Caldwell as Rosemary in Fast Food – photo by Jodie Hutchinson
Review: Guy Webster