Review: Things I Know to be True – complex family dynamics on and off stage

Ruth Agnew reviews Things I Know to be True, an Australian family drama written by Andrew Bovell, directed by Shane Bosher, and staged at The Court Theatre.

Set in the suburban home of Australian empty nesters Bob and Fran Price (Stephan Lovett and Lara MacGregor), Things I Know to be True explores the complexity of family as their adult children navigate life’s challenges from the comfort of a parent’s unconditional love for their children, to the pain of fragmented relationships. The audience in attendance on opening night clearly felt a connection with the Price’s, showing their appreciation with a standing ovation. The glow of this success was dimmed, however, by the overhanging shadow of the decision to cast a cis man in the role of a trans woman.

The youngest Price progeny, Rosie (Caitlin Rivers), embarks on her OE eager to experience adult life and embrace adventure, but when a Spanish romance leaves her broken-hearted and broke, she returns to the house she grew up in to heal. Her unexpected appearance in Bob’s beloved garden is the catalyst for an impromptu reunion and introduction to the other siblings, Pip (Heather O’Carroll), Ben (Daniel Watterson and Mark/Mia (Simon Leary).

Each of the Price offspring has a secret to divulge, and they do so over a passage of time marked by the blooming and pruning rate of Bob’s beloved rose bushes. Each character’s calamity is met with an almost eerie mother’s intuition, and an outburst of rage,  hand-wringing, and recriminations, before being tidily resolved.

Bovell’s intention is to examine the universality of family, and while the difficult relationship dynamics within the Price household certainly resonated with the audience, for the most part, the issues and solutions are distinctly white and middle-class. Pip has an affair whilst on an overseas conference, leaves her marriage, and relocates to Vancouver because her husband “can’t see beyond the end of the driveway”. Rosie flies home to lick her wounds after Europe didn’t give her the great gap year she’d hoped for. Ben becomes an embezzler to keep up with the cool crowd at work, but luckily Mum has a wee nest egg to pay back his theft so that he can avoid incarceration. Bob may have taken early redundancy from his car assembly line job, but clever Fran snookered away a portion of her weekly nurse’s wage, then made some savvy stock market moves that left her with a sneaky six figure sum.

The fourth sibling, Mark/Mia (Simon Leary), has a secret that hits the family harder than Ben’s sticky-fingered antics: they are trans. Fran begins mourning her beautiful son, Bob pleads for them to not transition, and Rosie is offended she wasn’t told earlier. We do not get as much monologuing from Mark/Mia, instead seeing their story through the impact of their disclosure on their family. This may be why the tone-deaf decision to cast a cisgender man in the role was made; we only see Mia presenting as themselves at the end of the play. However, that choice reduces being trans to an aesthetic. If the character is male presenting, perhaps it seems fine to some to have a cis male actor in the role. But that gives me the same uneasy feeling I would have if, for example, an suntanned, olive skinned actor of European descent was cast in an African-American role.  A trans actor would have brought a depth of understanding to the role that cannot be replicated with consultation with representatives from the trans community.

This is disappointing as there were some lovely moments in Mia’s story that show the family’s evolution towards understanding. The Court Theatre has made incredible progress from the days when the mainstage was filled with plays written and by directed by white men.  Artistic Director Dan Pengally’s first season was proof of his commitment to diversity and wider representation, and it is surprising to see this failure under his leadership.

The cast is uniformly strong, anchored by impressive newcomer Rivers as the ever-present, always observing Rosie. The standouts are, of course, Stephan Lovatt and Lara MacGregor, playing parents who wanted their children to be just like them, only better.

This play was a wonderfully presented entertainment, and I would have loved to be able to delve deeper into the nuanced interactions and stellar cast, but it seems offensive to do so while the casting issue is unresolved. In the programme, The Court Theatre is described as a family, and just like the Prices, they don’t get everything right, but it doesn’t mean we don’t love them.

The show runs from 20 March – 17 April at The Court Theatre. The reviewer received complimentary tickets.

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