Life After George: The fire inside

The fire inside

Photo: Enlivening death

Life After George breathes new life into Centaur

When it comes to performance spaces, it’s no secret that Centaur Theatre’s main stage is a bit of a dud. With the action planted firmly on the floor and the one level of seating sloping gradually up and away, the actors start out smaller than life, shouting toward the back of the house where, unfortunately, the audience experience lies closer to witnessing an ultra-low-impact sporting event than live theatre.

All this to say that if there is any heat coming off a Centaur main-stage production, then there must be quite a fire burning onstage. And happily, there was fire on the opening night of Centaur’s new season last Thursday, both literally and figuratively.

Life After George is the work of renowned Australian playwright Hannie Rayson, whose year 2000 play won a slew of awards in her home country before travelling to London’s West End to be directed by fellow Australian Michael Blakemore – the only person to ever win Tony Awards as Best Director of a Play and Best Director of a Musical in the same season.

Starting in Australia during the sometime present before moving deftly through time and space, Life After George revolves around Professor Peter George, whose working-class parents, presence at major 1960s political upheavals and sharp mind have joined forces to create a well-respected, die-hard socialist academic. When George is suddenly killed in a freak flying accident, his best friend, daughter and three former wives are left to piece together not only who Professor Pete was but how and to what degree their own lives and personalities were defined by him.

Life is a finely crafted piece of theatre; its narrative flows smoothly, dolling out exposition in a natural, leisurely fashion – an outstanding example of the magic that can occur in theatre and film when entire decades are believably re-played over the course of a few brief hours.

Hannie Rayson also knows a thing or two about creating pleasing little turns of phrase whose impact is bolstered considerably by one of the strongest ensemble casts to grace the Centaur stage in years. You get the sense that this group of actors were challenged by one another to the extent that a seasoned theatre veteran like Ron White is matched step for step by young local favourite Paula Jean Hixson. And this is especially good news when you consider that it allows them to side step, for the most part, this play’s primary weakness – the tendency for Rayson’s characters to skate too close to caricature.

As I’ve said before, from a sheer programming perspective, Centaur’s new season looks quite promising. If they can manage to successfully build from this strong base, then the months ahead look warm indeed.

Life After George
Centaur, until Oct.19

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