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Rocket Man – subtlenuance

Theatre is poked fun at and picked apart in the course of this delicate relationship dramedy.
By Rima Sabina Aouf
July 08, 2013
By Rima Sabina Aouf
July 08, 2013

What's in a name? The work of theatre company subtlenuance is full of subtle nuances, but it's their bold strokes that have earned them high standing in the Sydney indie scene. Not only do they produce solely new works, they've stretched the medium through the wine-tasting/theatre hit Blind Tasting, the innovatively developed Political Hearts of Children and now Rocket Man, a smorgasbord of self-referentiality Joss Whedon would be in awe of.

This title, too, is one not to accept on surface value. Neil (Daniel Hunter) is an astronaut — or so he's told the woman he hooked up with last night, Veronica (Sylvia Keays). Rockets soar. They also explode. When the new lovers wake up in the morning, he's keen to prolong their playful encounter, and she is too — though even more than that, she wants to get to her morning appointment, an important audition with the Sydney Theatre Company. With increasing persistence, he starts ragging on her for her choice of career. It's an odd move to make on a woman you like, but as becomes clear, Neil has bigger issues than just the minimalistic vs literal staging debate.

Dispersing the tension between Neil and Veronica is her housemate, Claudia (Alyssan Russell), not shy of barging into a room, and Claudia's boyfriend, Justin (Stephen Wilkinson), an easygoing guy sheltering one piece of vital information. The way playwright and director Paul Gilchrist manages the tension and spark between the four characters is masterful and fun to watch.

No one will love Rocket Man more than the theatre crowd. Some of the best jokes rely on industry knowledge, as do some of the heaviest questions. (At one point, character Veronica actually references another subtlenuance production that actor Sylvia is in. Record!) If Gilchrist's goal, however, is to hold the moral fundamentals of theatre up to the light, he doesn't quite succeed, because it's impossible to side with the volatile Neil. There's a solid wall of ad hominem only the fittest logician can cross.

Rocket Man is actually at its most successful as a delicate character dramedy, which is what separates it from last year's serving of sizzling theatre talk, I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard. Its characters are whole, affectionately shaded and genuine in a way that outshines the irony. Performances are sensational. The whole thing is, contrary to Neil's binary critique of indie theatre, neither "underdeveloped nor overwritten". (Though I'm only begrudgingly accepting that the central mystery to my eyes — how does Neil know so much about an art form he detests — wasn't answered. I accept it because I believe, from the context, that Gilchrist does know.)

One final kudos must go to designer Rachel Scane; subtlenuance have gone for a very literal staging in creating Veronica's messy bedroom. Styling something to look so unstyled is a triumph.

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