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The Deliberate Disappearance of My Friend, Jack Hartnett - review

The Deliberate Disappearance of My Friend, Jack Hartnett - review

It sounds so post-modern, doesn’t it: that titillating title, promising a play full of things that may or may not be as they seem. What does “deliberate” mean, and has anyone really “disappeared”, and what about that “my friend” assertion? Etc. Rochelle Bright’s new play takes the form of a retelling: a man called Oliver takes us back through his quest to discover what happened to this man Jack, along the way spreading a general unease about anything and everything he touches, eventually taking us to a place that is not at all pleasant, and then to another that’s even worse. And then another. Etc. No spoilers here, but I hope you can tell that this could be enormous good fun, and/or enormously disturbing. It could be the makings of a really good play.

And indeed there is a lot to admire. Todd Emerson, alone onstage for the whole show, gives us Oliver, who is a self-regarding jock, and also Jack, who is a fat and lonely loser with a hint of The Usual Suspects’ Verbal Kint, which may or may not be important. Emerson, thin as a rake, with no costume changes, does a very passable fat man.

Behind the stage, Abraham Kunin’s three-piece band keeps the music tight and driving, and there are many songs. Emerson has an appealing voice. Director Conrad Newport moves him around the stage with a sure hand, and Bright has worked her way from each plot point to the next with an impressive confidence.

But those efforts aren’t always enough. Daniel Williams has contributed an intriguing set that makes boldly creative use of the Q Loft space, but it’s also vast where the play calls for claustrophobia. And while Bright’s idea to splice the genre of confessional noir thriller together with a musical is admirably courageous, too many of the songs feel like forgotten b-tracks.

The play is not truly dark, even at its darkest, and nor is it ever truly wistful, or wild, or wonderful. There are no jokes. This is a serious point – Oliver and Jack take themselves so bloody seriously all the time, you find yourself longing for a bit of rollicking.

All of which makes it a little less than gripping. What’s Oliver up to? What’s the truth about Jack and his disappearance? The plot will tell us, if we wait, and yet there’s too little tension in the waiting. There are big themes – sexual exploitation, the vulnerability that haunts loneliness, the corrosive power of greed over friendship, the dangers of trusting people online, and more – but a play isn’t good just because its topics are important.

For sure, creating a genre mashup, and putting a single actor on stage, and making sure exactly the right information is revealed at exactly the right time (the key to any thriller), they’re all hard to do. Rochelle Bright is nothing if not ambitious, and Emerson is a good enough actor to keep us engaged.

But all of that effort can’t quite disguise a problem at the core of the work: these are people it’s hard to care about.

This is a surprise. With her triumphant earlier play, Daffodils, an account of her own parents’ lives together, Bright made all our hearts ache for both the mother and the father. She can do characters in anguish, and so can Emerson (who played the father). It’s possibly not a coincidence that Daffodils was a true story – more or less, one assumes – because that’s what grounded it.

This time, one assumes, the play is completely made up. For all its inventiveness, its stylistic sophistication and its thematic grunt, Jack Hartnett struggles to engage our empathy, and that leaves it floating.

The Deliberate Disappearance of My Friend, Jack Hartnett runs until August 8 at Q Theatre. qtheatre.co.nz

Theatre