Theatre Review: Belleville, Old Fitz Theatre, Sydney (performances until May 7)

Before any actor graces the stage, the apartment is full of stories. The cracks on the wall tell us it was built-to-last a long time ago. The beaded curtains in the doorway are permanently drawn to the side; while charming, they quickly became a nuisance. By the red corduroy couch, there’s a pair of boots with socks hanging out of them. So someone’s in right now, and they’re comfortable.

When Abby (Taylor Ferguson) arrives home, she doesn’t see the boots, but hears a sleazy, tinny drum beat from the next room. What she discovers is Zack (Josh Anderson) — who should be at work — doing something that rhymes with procrastinating.

This incident is one of many cracks in the American couple’s Parisian fantasy. Let’s say they’re at the denial stage, so they still have anger, bargaining and depression to get through. As do we. That might sound formulaic, but it’s a riveting experience. Particularly in the Old Fitz Theatre, where it’s less like watching their marriage fall apart and more like being in the living room when it happens.

Writer Amy Herzog’s thesis, if you will, is manifested with Alioune (Mansoor Noor) and Amina (Chantelle Jamieson) — Zabby’s neighbours and landlords. The middle-eastern couple haven’t the time for existential questions about their relationship or vocations, they’re too busy getting it done.

Ferguson plays Abby with a nice touch of body-horror, as if she’s trying to squirm out of her own skin. Noor is appropriately bashful as  Alioune, a man who has inherited his responsibility; where Jamieson’s Amina has the straight-backed assertiveness of a woman who has married into hers. As for Anderson, at the beginning I felt he was falling short of Zack’s easy confidence. By the end, when the character has become a mess of shame and vulnerability, I realised I was wrong.

If the play fails to pack the punch that it should, it’s because of the things that you normally wouldn’t notice. Jonathan Hindmarsh’s set design is beautifully rendered. Though, apart from plot points — like the stream of a shower in the next room — Katelyn Shaw’s sound design is non existent.

Something we notice far too much is Benjamin Brockman’s lighting, which flickers between ethereal pinks and blues. With the LEDs that ominously hang over audience and stage alike, it feels more suited to a spaceship than La Ville-Lumuire. Though I like the way the light spills in through the windows.

Music marks transitions and moments in the most superfluous way. When it’s gloomy, director Claudia Barrie opts for gloomy music. For just a jump in time, the music is perfunctory. Often it’s just filling the silence, rather than adding something that’s not already on the stage.

Maybe it’s all meant to reflect the would-be-Parigots’ obtuseness and deluded marriage. But shouldn’t that delusion be restricted to them, with the sound of mopeds and coffee machines placing them (and us) in the big bad city? And, why not – if you can make the weed actually smell like weed – have the aroma of coffee and fresh-baked bread?

The shame, dear reader, is that we had the sweet sorrow, but we never had Paris.

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Belleville is playing at The Old Fitz in Sydney’s Woolloomoolloo until May 7. More info and tickets can be found here.

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