Ensemble Theatre, February 19


The Crunch Time of the title is the moment when assisted dying becomes urgent, and providing that ultimate act of kindness is put to the test. This sequence has begun with Steve asking his grown-up sons the painful question, “Was there ever a moment when I was a really good father to you?” It ends with chair-gripping tension and death in one of David Williamson’s great scenes.

Guy Edmonds and Megan Drury. Photos: Prudence Upton.

The play, Williamson’s last, brings down the curtain on his 50-year career as Australia’s most performed dramatist, playing a pre-eminent role in normalising Australian voices being heard upon a stage. Meanwhile the country’s middle class has swarmed along to laugh at their materialistic ambitions and smug self-satisfaction repeatedly being punctured.

Crunch Time, among Williamson’s works exploring the dialectic between emotional instinct and rational analysis, is really two plays in one. The first of the interwoven strands concerns parental favouritism and consequent sibling rivalry, and the second concerns assisted dying. The play’s heft and impact lies in the latter strand.

Williamson’s trademark sense of dramatic irony is lively to the end, as when Steve (John Wood), the dying father, contemplating which of his warring sons to fire for the benefit of his engineering empire, says to his wife Helen (Diane Craig), “Whichever way it goes, I want to make sure emotions don’t enter into it.”

Of course they don’t just enter, they explode. Steve fires the older, nerdy, hyper-intelligent Luke (Guy Edmonds) by letter, crowning a painful history of Jimmy (Matt Minto) being favoured, thanks to his supposed charisma (which we don’t witness) and sporting prowess. The family is torn apart as Luke nurses a grudge that grows into a black hole of resentment. The marriages of both sons dissolve, Jimmy’s due to his philandering, and Luke’s because Lauren (Emma Palmer) needs more of a go-getter than a husband who’ll renounce his inheritance rather than reconcile with this father.

John Woods and Diane Craig. Photos: Prudence Upton.

But the seams in this sibling-rivalry strand show. You feel your response buttons being pushed, instead of it happening by narrative stealth, and the actors sometimes seem to be fleshing out sketches of characters that have been pasted on to the play, while the real story lies with Steve’s cancer and desire to die. Whenever that strand is to the fore, the stakes go up, taking both the writing and the performances with them.

In the weaker strand the characters too readily vent inner thoughts, when they should struggle more to express themselves, not because they are inarticulate, but because they lack sufficient self-awareness, with only Helen, and perhaps Jimmy’s wife Susy (Megan Drury) as the exceptions. But then there are flashes of the Williamson who puts glorious lines in the mouths of characters who lack that self-awareness on a prime-ministerial scale, just as there are flashes of Williams at his most lyrical and most perspicacious.

The feuding brothers are brought together in a charming scene in which Jimmy restyles Luke into someone with half a chance of attracting women, but the bigger confrontation between Luke and Steve seems undercooked – perhaps because a more pivotal climax is just around the corner.

The play’s staccato feel is amplified by director Mark Kilmurry’s quick-fire scene transitions, and the acting intensifies monumentally towards Steve’s demise, with Diane Craig standing out. Her character emerges as the bravest as well as the most grounded. The coda is there primarily for her – and for Williamson to leave off writing plays on a note of optimism.

Until April 9.