THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE at Bristol Old Vic

Andrew Bovell’s masterpiece in generational crisis went down very well with a predominantly young audience at the Old Vic last night, in which many were studying this family meltdown for their GCSEs.

In an Adelaide suburb, a working class couple, Bob and Fran Price, has worked selflessly to give their four kids everything they didn’t have themselves. But the family idyll they like to project is about to be shaken by the life choices taken by their two sons, Mark and Ben, and daughters Pip and Rosie. Each of them is fighting to secure an identity beyond the family bubble, leaving their parents as bewildered witnesses, with their conservative ambitions in tatters. Things I Know To Be True takes an unflinching look at the comforting and smothering aspects of home life and the powerful need for the young to express themselves while the older generation loses its influence. This Frantic Assembly/State Theatre Company South Australia production tapped into this angst-filled dam with complete conviction.

Bob Price, played by John McArdle, is a working class man, now in his early sixties, who has taken early redundancy. His wife, Fran, played by Cate Harmer, has spent a life in self-denial, settling for a life with Bob and the kids while suppressing her own emotional needs. Harmer’s depiction of Fran’s occasionally volcanic frustration was a tour de force, always counterbalanced by Bob’s quieter resolve in his attempt to listen to his kids. Seline Hizli, excellent as elder daughter Pip, still wrestling with hurtful childhood memories of censure by her mother, shared one of the night’s best scenes, when simmering anger and resentment was at last allowed to boil over. Kirsty Oswald always gave younger sister Rosie enough naivety and youthful charm to convince as the most-favoured daughter.

Bovell’s brilliance is his ability to highlight multiple existential levels at once. We can, in turn and simultaneously, reside in the mindset of all six of these protagonists, and find sympathy for all of them. In moves that accentuated Fran and Rosie’s dreams and desires, Geordie Brookman’s and Scott Graham’s direction included some charming choreography that involved the ‘flying’ of both of them over the heads of the rest of the cast. In other moments, Bob’s emotions were emphasised by his leaning forward at unlikely angles, implying the otherworldly experience of genuine shock.

Geoff Cobham’s set laid out the picket fence normalcy of Bob and Fran’s domain, while implying a wildness beyond with outlines of a eucalyptus tree with threatening, tentacle-like branches. Multiple small lamps hung in the air like fireflies above the stage adding a magical flavour to the proceedings, while Nils Frahm’s sound track flickered from tender to threatening with simple double-tracked piano lines.

In a denouement that literally rips the blooms from Bob’s rose garden, Bovell reminds us that sometimes life will simply take its own course, disregarding what we might design or desire it to be.   ★★★★☆   Simon Bishop    7th February  2018