Have you ever felt like you’re in a kind of limbo? Like you’re living but nothing seems to change? Maybe the past two years of working, socialising, and living from home have felt like that. Daniel Keene’s 2010 existential play speaks directly to the experience of aimlessness that has become so familiar.
Set in the lobby of a rather odd hotel, Life Without Me explores notions of purpose, direction, fulfilment as the myriad of characters fail to achieve their desires and instead return repeatedly, often involuntarily, to this hotel. John (Michael Gooley) wants to leave this town and start fresh, Roy (Vincent O’Neill) wants to return to his golden years, Alice (Lynda Leavers) is waiting to move into her new life, and Ellen (Koren Chambers) and Tom (Adrien Glen) think they might not want the life they’re used to. They’re served by argumentative and easily befuddled Nigel (Michael Barlow) who has turned the hotel into his life in an effort to avoid his mother Mrs Spence (Liz Coote) who is still struggling to remember her husband’s death. Are these their lives? Is this it?
Despite the bleak backstories and the meandering conversations (more like monologues) about regret and sense of self, Life Without Me was a very funny production with the absurdity amplified by Natalie Banach’s direction. Banach picked up on the characters’ quirks and didn’t allow them to sink into banality, instead crafting a kind of Whovillian lightness and whimsy, particularly in characters like Mrs Spence and Alice. Other subtle elements, like the characters’ monochromatic costumes, added to the uncanny construction of this world which allowed for ironic laughter rather than the recognition of despair.
The set design, also by Banach, played with the symbolism of a maze with white walls and black, angular accents. The lobby was a fresh slate, a blank space, somewhere for the characters to pass through, and yet they always got trapped in conversation, or argument, that kept them moving around like the poor fish in the lobby’s aquarium; circling and never quite getting where they were going.
The performances from the cast were fully realised and breathed life into the wordy existentialism of Keene’s script. Gooley and O’Neill presented sober, down-trodden men past the point of sympathy towards slight distaste, which served well as counter-weight to the buoyant speculation of the hoteliers Nigel and Mrs Spence. Barlow was especially enjoyable to watch as he twisted tighter and tighter knots of logical reasoning or spirally absurdity. Coote’s performance as the character with seemingly the least at stake, despite her ownership of the hotel, provided a comically grounded perspective as John and Roy expounded on life and existence. The cast delivered the script with a consistent consideration that made the production enjoyable as both a character study and a philosophical text.
Maybe the solution to a great stagnation is to step off the hamster wheel, cut ties with what once was, and walk forcefully into the unknown. The worst case scenario is life blows you back to where you began but, now, you know what to do next.
Life Without Me is running at Arts Theatre Cronulla from February 11th – March 19th
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