The set-up in Things I Know To Be True is hardly novel: paint a picture of familial bliss and then take a hammer to it. Such a template has powered soap operas for decades and is a recurring trope of Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams. And who’s to argue? This new play by Andrew Bovell may be another entry into a packed genre, but it does it with wit, style and authenticity.
Things kick off as Rosie, the baby of the Price family, returns home to her sister, two brothers and parents (Bob and Fran – even their names reeking of steadiness) in suburban Australia (thankfully the accents are ditched here) where Dad Bob tends his roses and Mum Fran tends her children.
Rosie in search of comfort – after an abortive trip around Europe results in a broken heart – and familiarity. The whirlwind of love, affection and zingy teasing she finds on return feels slightly hyper-real, but an inviting and enviable domestic set-up than anyone who has returned home for Christmas can relate to.
Needless to say, all is not quite as it appears. That every single member of the family is so drastically affected by a life-changing series of events at the precise moment the baby of the family returns home tests suspension of disbelief. At times this new play can feel more like a writing exercise as a result: every sibling falling like dominos until a final, climactic tragedy. But when the writing and performances are so strong no-one will mind.
Things I Know To Be True doesn’t strive for kitchen-sink authenticity. It is lyrical and vaguely ethereal and the segueways between scenes when Rosie or her mother, Fran, are borne aloft by the other members of their family are tender, beguiling. Why write a metaphor when you can perform one?
The six performers have a lot of work to do here. It must be hell on the nerves to perform such weighty emotional material but they do it so well. Imogen Stubbs and Ewan Stewart as the parents appear particularly effortless, the latter a slightly stooped, bemused and careworn portrait of Dad-dom. Stubbs is busier, pricklier – there’s a tamped-down anger, longing, passion inside her character that fuels her constant energy.
In the end everyone comes to realise that what they saw as the tragedies, difficulties and unhappinesses in their lives can easily be thrown into sharp relief by something worse. The image of Bob, in his shirt and pants, waiting before answering the early-hours telephone call he knows will change his life (“which of my children is dead… how will I tell their mother?”) is memorable, haunting even. In one of the simple, affecting moments of physicality the play proffers he leans forward, just enough to defy gravity, suspended before an inevitable fall.
The play reminds us that the list of things we know to be true is probably shorter than we may think.
Things I Know To Be True
Until 5 November
Images: Manuel Harlan