Things I know To Be True

Things I Know To Be True“The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love; it is, perhaps, the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment.” – Colin Murray Parkes, Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life

The Price family is close, tight-knit, but mum and dad – Bob and Fran – are on the brink of becoming empty nesters. Their youngest child, Rosie, has disappeared to Europe for her gap year. Oldest daughter, Pip, has her own family now. Son Mark might be getting ready to settle down with his long-term girlfriend. And Ben is moving up in the world in his corporate finance job. Everything’s changing and we learn in the first scene that the spectre of grief is on the horizon.

Rosie gets robbed in Berlin (after three days of hot sex with a Spaniard) and has to turn home much earlier than expected. She was so close to starting her life, but she’s also scared of change. Her return seems to start a torrent of changes in all of their lives. Andrew Bovell’s Things I Know to be True tells the story of the next year of their lives and the uncovering of truths both present and past.

Bovell has a penchant for large ensemble plays about the complexities of families that don’t shy away from awful truths and difficult characters. This play, while not new, is having its Melbourne premiere at Theatre Works and it is searing in its portrayal of a family who are starting to unravel now that the children have found their own lives and own voices.

Bethany J Fellows’ set is a simple backyard fence – the limits of the family home that Pip describes as her “world”. She grew up there and got married there. When she was a child, she saw her mum crying there which she didn’t understand then, but now – as a mother herself – she understands all too well. The fence is high, imposing, looming above the action – though the characters can slip in and out easily, especially once they start feeling trapped themselves.

Aron Murray’s lighting design draws beautiful days and nights across the space as the backyard evolves across four seasons. The shade and depth of Murray’s work underlines a family in flux – cast in bright lights one moment and disappearing into long shadows the next.

Most of the tension of this two-and-a-half-hour play (which flies by!) is in the unearthing of truths, which makes it hard for me to tell you exactly what happens. In one way, none of the twists themselves are all that surprising, but having them cascade out one-after-the-other makes for a moving, hilarious, jolting, heartbreaking experience.

Theatre Works Things I Know To Be True Belinda McClory photo by Andrew Bott PhotographyBelinda McClory is astonishing as matriarch Fran, who is desperately trying to keep the family together – even as some of her tirades threaten to tear everyone apart. Bovell has created a remarkable character here; spiky, difficult to like, but with such clear ideas about life, you can’t help but feel some empathy for her.

Ben Grant’s Bob goes along to get along, after being forced to retire much too early by a redundancy. Grant makes Bob affable and loveable early on, which is in stark contrast to the complicated emotional machinations he must navigate later in the play.

The four siblings are all allowed their moments to shine. Eva Rees’ Rosie is on the precipice of adulthood and acts as the dramatic spine of the story. Rees is always compelling on stage and you can’t take your eyes off her here. Rosie has got the most to lose, if she isn’t able to find her path out of the family home and away from Adelaide.

Brigid Gallacher is heartbreakingly good as Pip, who is desperate not to become her mother. Joss McClelland has a tricky time with the finance-bro character of Ben, the least sympathetic of the kids. Tomáš Kantor probably has the furthest to go with their character and the slow transformation is handled smartly and sensitively. Kantor’s stage presence is luminescent.

When Bovell chooses to make his characters react in an ugly, unvarnished way, it can be shocking. At moments, the play edges (ever-so-slightly) toward melodrama, but I think this production – guided by director Kitan Petkovski – never lets it tip over the edge. Everything on stage is very human, even when it makes you want to look away, even when it feels like too much – it’s full of the messy truth of life.

(Note: the content warnings for this show – “Coarse language” and “verbal violence” – are a little too vague. While I think all the dialogue is fitting for the characters, be warned that the transphobic language used during one scene is particularly upsetting.)

Petkovski has a keen eye for keeping things grounded, even as the characters get bigger, louder and they threaten to spin out of control. His vision gives us some evocative tableaux that will stick in the mind for a long while. Petkovski knows how to steer a strong cast through a tricky script that asks a lot from them – moving from The Inheritance to this show proves what a master he is of big casts and big emotions.

Things I Know to be True is simply staged and allows passion and feeling to pour out – to the point it might overwhelm us. But it has so much to say about love and marriage and commitment and family, that you don’t mind feeling a bit on edge for a little while. Life is a tricky thing to navigate, after all.

At this home of independent theatre, Theatre Works is proving they are the match of any mainstage company with this striking production of Bovell’s latest work.

Very few things this family goes through are easy, but if these children want to make their own lives, they might have to sacrifice joy and face grief. This is the toll the Prices must pay.

Things I know To Be True
Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda
Performance: Tuesday 23 April 2024
Season continues to 4 May 2024
Information and Bookings:

Images: Belinda McClory (Fran) and Ben Grant (Bob) in Things I Know To Be True – photo by Andrew Bott Photography | Belinda McClory (Fran) in Things I Know To Be True – photo by Andrew Bott Photography

Review: Keith Gow