The show’s final, beautiful coup de theatre feels rich in emotional potential

— REVIEW of ‘The Trouble with Harry’ | The Guardian

The Trouble with Harry | Review

Nancy Groves | The Guardian
27 Oct, 2014

Lachlan Philpott and cast resurrect the wider world of the woman who lived as a man in turn-of-the-century Sydney, but his central character gets lost in the process

What gives me the right to tell this story?” asks playwright Lachlan Philpott in the program notes for his latest play, The Trouble With Harry (no relation to the Hitchcock film), which received its Australian premiere at Melbourne festival. His answer: a conviction that the stories of people routinely neglected by history should be told.

The story in this case is that of Harry Crawford, otherwise known as Eugenia “Lena” Falleni, the woman who lived as a man married to a woman in turn-of-the century Sydney. This setting is conjured up with a powerful aesthetic in MKA’s production, directed by Alyson Campbell and designed by Eugyeene Teh. The stage takes up at least half the floor of Northcote Town Hall, around which two narrators in non-period-specific dress (Emma Palmer and Dion Mills) push a series of wire frames and lamps that serve as windows and doors into the marital home, making voyeurs of us all.

Both the suitcase-littered set and the script, which is rich in alliteration and poetic pile-up, create a heightened sense of the cramped conditions and precariousness of life for Harry (Maude Davey), his wife Annie (Caroline Lee) and her teenage son (a second Harry – Daniel Last). This claustrophobic effect is enhanced for the audience by the headphones through which we listen to every amplified boot-squeak and whispered conversation.

This is not a place where secrets can be kept for long. You can change your clothes, change your name, Harry is told, but the past will catch up with you. And it does, in the form of an all-too-familiar house guest (an excellent Elizabeth Nabben), who arrives to put a cat among the pigeons where there is already a “cock in a box” (the playwright’s innuendo).

Regrettably, the central conceit of Philpott’s award-winning play Silent Disco is the downfall of this one. The headphones are a distraction from a compelling story – several audience members remove theirs in the first 15 minutes – and it’s hard to escape the feeling they’re compensating for an element missing from the show itself. Take them off and the stage feels cavernous not claustrophobic, and the characters disconnected.

“It’s often concerned me that Falleni rated a mention in history while the others who shared her life were forgotten,” writes Philpott. Certainly, both his retelling and the ensemble cast who enact it do a fine job of shading in those characters. Somehow, however, Harry himself gets lost in the fray of a production that manages both to over-complicate and simplify his story / history.

With narrators that seem too invasive even in their alter-egos as nosy neighbours, Harry becomes a cipher we care about less than the real-life counterpart. The show’s final, beautiful coup de theatre feels rich in emotional potential ­– if only that emotion had been sustained throughout.

“The show’s final, beautiful coup de theatre feels rich in emotional potential”