Ruben Guthrie: Comedy That Burns

Much of the purpose behind the National University Theatre Society’s year of Australian drama is to recognise and celebrate the genuinely great works of homegrown theatre that far too often go unknown and under-appreciated. By that criterion, the season so far is a resounding success. One month after the phenomenal When the Rain Stops Falling, director Shaun Wykes has delivered a superb production of Brendan Cowell’s Ruben Guthrie. Cowell worked on the scripts for The Slap and is one of the biggest up-and-coming names in Australian entertainment; and after seeing Ruben Guthrie, it’s quite clear he is an exceptional talent. If you were planning to go out to the movies any night this week, go to this instead. It is a wild, exhilarating night at the theatre, and you will not regret it.

The play’s theme is alcoholism, and it follows the struggle of one man – advertising director Ruben Guthrie (Lewis Meegan) – to get sober and stay sober. But if that sounds unbearably grim and worthy, don’t worry, this is no Lost Weekend. It’s a comedy: a comedy of the darkest and grimmest flavour, but nonetheless a comedy that has the entire audience literally roaring and gasping with laughter. And like all the best comedies, it is shot through with moments of very serious pathos – firing the tragedy at you when you have been disarmed by the laughter, so that you feel it all the more.

Lewis Meegan carries the show with a remarkable performance. One moment he is the highest of high flyers, talking at us so fast we can barely follow him, with stories of parties, orgies, head-spinning adventures, all of them slick with alcohol. At one of those parties, he has thrown himself off a roof into what he thought was a swimming pool. It wasn’t. He still has his arm in a sling, and this is why he’s now at the AA meetings. And in an instant, he can move from telling us these dizzying stories, to being suddenly vulnerable, trying desperately to hold his life together. His fiancée, a Czech supermodel (Gabrielle Dutton), has left him. Life for Ruben Guthrie has grown very hard, very fast.

In a succession of hilarious scenes, Ruben must deal with a series of people close to him who in one way or another will pressure him to start drinking again. His boss, a suave and almost sinister Michael Bones, knows it’s only when he’s drinking that he comes up with the big ideas (almost incidentally, the play offers a charmingly satirical take on the world of marketing). His best mate Damian (Alex Battye) is the kind of Australian man who regards alcohol as indispensable to having a good time, and refuses to accept that Ruben can no longer go on the binge with him. Ruben’s mother (Jessica Symonds) is unable to deal with the reality of her son being an alcoholic – and she also doesn’t take kindly to the woman from the AA group (a fantastically high-strung Alex Davis) to whom Ruben turns for comfort. Best of all is the incomparable Dean Batten as Ruben’s alcoholic father, able to turn any line he is given into comedy that brings the house down.

Yet this is no simple morality tale, for the people who stand in the way of Ruben’s recovery are disarmingly shown to have their own demons too, while some of the people from the AA group turn out not to have entirely pure intentions. In the midst of a set dominated by row upon row of bottles of drink on the shelves that line the stage, Ruben’s battle with alcohol becomes more complex and more challenging than anybody anticipates. In the second act there are some very disturbing scenes, including some that had this reviewer shutting his eyes and squirming in his seat. (No, the play is most definitely not suitable for children.) Ruben Guthrie does everything it should, and more. One moment you’re having the time of your life; the next you’re suddenly feeling shaken, confronted, frightened, like the floor has dropped out from under you. Almost, you imagine, like being an alcoholic yourself.