Originally staged at Melbourne’s Malthouse, Bliss arrives at Belvoir bedecked with the kind of reviews that limit its audience to hardy subscribers who have already paid for their tickets and industry colleagues who will inevitably be required to paper the house.
It would take an advertising copywriter of uncanny genius to spin this existential crisis comedy as anything other than hard work.
Adapted from former advertising man Peter Carey’s 1981 novel by Tom Wright, this Matthew Lutton-directed exploration of middle age and the search for meaning is clotted with long speeches and exhibits a tenuous grasp on what constitutes funny.
Advertising guru Harry Joy (played by Toby Truslove) finds his outlook on life transformed by a heart attack on the lawn. Jump-started after nine minutes, Joy awakes thinking he is in hell.
And he might be. Cancer is rife and pretty much every product Harry has ever spruiked has been proven to kill you. His latently ambitious, adulterous wife Bettina (Amber McMahon) is trying to have him sectioned. His teenaged children (Charlotte Nicdao and Will McDonald) are dabbling in communism, drugs and incest, and his best friend Alex (Marco Chiappi) appears determined to steal his identity.
The only refuge he can find is in the company of part-time sex worker and eco-warrior Honey Barbara (Anna Samson), who embodies the promise of a new, radically-connected life of tree-planting, bee-keeping and storytelling in the bush.
Wright’s adaptation is heavier on monologue than dialogue, which Lutton’s hard-working cast deliver with laboured gusto. Wright and Lutton’s determination to insert a layer of meta-theatrical humour into the proceedings only serves to extend our already arm’s-length relationship with the characters.
Marg Horwell’s timber-veneered set, featuring a wooden framed greenhouse on a revolve, is another impediment to our immersion.
A flatlining first half proves hardest. After interval, the production and the storytelling gel more confidently, though on opening night, a noticeable number of the audience didn’t feel the need to return to their seats. A pity, really, because the scene in which Harry finds himself in a mental hospital is by far the night’s most effective.
Truslove demonstrates an appealing line in befuddlement, which is just as well, since little else is demanded of him. Chiappi is masterfully funny as Alex, a rubbery question mark in a baggy suit. McMahon’s Bettina stands proud and grounded. Susan Prior is very funny as the psych ward manager Alice.
Bliss is anything but. Ultimately, our sympathy for Harry is overwhelmed by that for the cast, who work so tirelessly and for so long (three hours with interval) to energise this lumbering evening of theatre.