BWW REVIEW: SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS Considers How People Connect When The Primary Means Of Connection Silenced
Tuesday 7th May 2019, Eternity Playhouse
The actual outcomes from self-care retreats comes into focus as six strangers struggle to connect when they aren't allowed to use their voices in Bess Wohl's SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS. Directed by Jo Turner, this unusual play brings together six great physical comedians to satirize the health and wellbeing retreat industry as well as provoke thought of how strangers bond when they aren't allowed to speak.
The premise of the comic come mild tragedy is that six individuals find themselves thrown together in a 5 day silent retreat nestled somewhere in middle of nature. Jan (Justin Smith) is adorably awkward in a dorky kind of way as he waits with a snack for the session to start. Television Yoga guru Rodney (Dorje Swallow) is cool and confident as he settles in, sans shoes. Bickering couple Joan (Sharon Millerchip) and Judy (Jane Phegan) seem to be drawn into this at Joan's insistence whilst Judy maintains a healthy skepticism. Outdoorsy adventurer Ned (Yalin Ozucelik) is meek and non-confrontational but intimidated and annoyed by Rodney. 20 something Alicia (Amber McMahon) is disorganized, distracted and desperate for the five days in the forest to be the answer to her problems. The Japanese inspired retreat is facilitated by an unseen expert, voiced by Jo Turner, who sets out the rule and runs increasingly unconvincing group therapy sessions.
Production designer Jeremy Allen has created a raised box space to contain Turner's characters. With nods to traditional Japanese buildings with paper lined screens and matted floors, Allen also alludes to the retreats lack of attention to detail, which naturally follows through to the ultimate treatment of it's paying guests. The image of Japanese tranquility is broken by a noticeboard, the incorrect style of matting, and the metal folding chairs, all coming together to give an impression of a center manager who thinks they know what they are doing but really isn't all that adept at anything. The link to nature is provided via the jungle gardens visible through the paper sliding doors and reinforced by Tegan Nicholls sound design of rain and wildlife.
The premise of the work is amusing and the performances draw on the performers physicality wonderfully, from bold gestures to more subtle facial expressions. McMahon, known for her physical humour employs her trademark clowning overexpression to present the no holds barred honesty of youth whilst Millerchip and Phegan present the older couple with more restraint of a generation that may have been taught to hold things in and keep a brave face. Swallow ensures that Rodney's smooth confidence is such that, like Ned, you don't really want to like inconsiderate yogi even though the women of the story seem to swoon for him. Smith exudes a warmth and the care and consideration he shows without words makes his story even more poignant. Ozucelik's Ned is the only character to share their story and his monologue is a perfect representation of the awkward overshares that these sorts of therapy sessions encourage.
The problems in the work however link to the repetition of jokes that, whilst at first are funny, wear thin easily. The arrogant guru who is only heard who seems to have little regard for his customers and does not seem to practice what he preaches and the labored scene changes presented in a balletic slow motion are not varied enough to give the audience anything new. Apart from witnessing the challenge of communicating without words, SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS doesn't really give any self help seminar or retreat skeptic anything new and for those that believe in it, chances are a 90 minute play won't change their minds that a 5 day workshop really can't do much to change your life.
See SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS for an amusing expression of non-verbal communication and the absurdity of self help gurus but, as with the retreat that plays out on stage, don't expect any groundbreaking revelations.
Photos: Robert Catto