Loving someone, especially family, is a constant reckoning. Growing up, learning more about yourself, and making life-shaping decisions change the makeup of relationships and family dynamics, sometimes irreparably. In Andrew Bovell’s newest drama, Things I Know To Be True, the Price family meets a period of great change head-on.￼
The family backyard in suburban Adelaide has seen many things, barbecues, 18ths, 21sts, and a wedding, and it is here that this family will face a very difficult year as the four children seek out their early adulthood identities and diverge from the path paved for them by their parents’ sacrifices and dreams. The passing seasons are marked by Bob’s (Tony Martin) beloved rose bushes and the repetitious cycle of care he bestows on them.
Each child steps up to deliver their story about life in the Price family. First, Rosie (Miranda Daughtry), the immature mid-twenties youngest daughter returns from a generic European adventure where heartbreak and fear turned her back to the comforts of home. Pip (Anna Lise Phillips) appears early one morning to announce her unhappiness and plans to take a job offer in Toronto, leaving her husband and daughters behind, and peeling back countless layers of resentment and hurt between her and her mother (Helen Thomson). The somewhat mysterious Mark (Tom Hobbs) builds up the courage to pursue a transition towards her true self, Mia, in Sydney. Finally, the highfalutin businessman Ben (Matt Levett) is under great pressure first to impress his colleagues, and then to hide his means of keeping up. As the truth of each child comes tumbling out, it’s clear there is supposed to be great empathy and reflection in each story, a sense that this is what growing up looks like, but the monologues are ultimately shallow, never stretching further than the initial announcement, and often with the action taking place off-stage. For such a close family, there is no overlap of stories, no meaningful communication without the mediation of the parental perspective, and each seismic shift in the characters’ lives is remote, isolated, completely separate from the other siblings.
The driving force of Bovell’s script is the parents, Fran and Bob, and the complicated balance between their relationship as teammates, lovers, and individuals. Fran is a hard woman who defaulted into her marriage and motherhood, a fact she perhaps regrets. Bob’s gaze grazes the horizon of the future, finding early retirement disappointing and not knowing what to look forward to next. Martin and Thomson dance around each other in a genuine representation of long-term commitment and the changing expectations of what life turns up. They are a great team of equal parts hard and soft, open and closed. And, even as their children spiral out into uncertainty, these two remain central in their green backyard.
Phillips’s rendering of Pip is heartfelt and bursting with frustration as she fights for her freedom to make mistakes. Hobbs is also commendable in his representation of a young person learning to forge her own comfort and support. These two characters in particular draw attention to the gaping divide between the generations of this family and the rigidity of unsaid expectations.
Set design from Stephen Curtis recreates the conventional Aussie backyard with green plastic garden furniture, corrugated iron fencing, a large square of cracked, worn concrete like an amphitheater stage on which life walks, and always framed with Bob’s steady rose garden. The big, empty space echoes with references to totem tennis games, family gatherings, and the events that shape a life. The lighting design by Damien Cooper uses contrasting tones of natural warm floor lights, like path night-lights, with moments of minimal cold overhead lighting to emphasise the heating and cooling atmosphere of the family’s dynamics. There is heavy shadowing throughout that feels dense and dramatic compared to the lightness in Alan John’s composition and Steve Francis’s sound design with flitting birds and lilting rhythms.
Neil Armfield remarks on the reflective quality of Bovell’s script, the way it concentrates the enormity of the world in a single family, and this interest in the play between family and society, time and generations, informs the realism of Armfield’s direction. In shared histories, the past is always present and, in this way, parents and children are caught in a cycle of memories, mistakes, dreams and disappointments. In the tense moments of confrontation, Armfield distils the distress of recognition from parent to child but also between audience and story. It’s a drama that can leave you breathless with unexpected laughter and searing truths.
Things I Know To Be True strives to capture the Australian suburban experience and it excellently mimics the construction of the idealised white working class. It is a recognisable story in large part because it falls strictly in line with a long history of white Australian suburban dramas. There is no sincere attempt to rigorously engage with the changed face of Australia but instead it peddles worn tropes of lost childhood and mythologised conceptions of home. This is a warm and well-done production but it is also suffocatingly safe.
Things I Know To Be True is running at Belvoir from June 8th – July 21st
To help support Night Writes, please consider tipping.