Mr Chips and the myth of the never-ending story


LETTERS and recriminations. Grazia (Dorothy Ann Gould) with her son, Adamo (Sven Ruygrok). Photograph courtesy

WHAT DO YOU do if, by the time you’re in your late 20s, your dream career bottoms out and you’re caught in a whirlwind of ennui and the need to redefine yourself? Why, you’ll probably tootle off to your mum for sympathy, sanction and maybe direction. That’s roughly what happens in the beautiful little play Family Secrets, which is lovingly crafted into a work of sheer elegance.

As the title indicates, it’s a tale of secrets held in the bosom of family, and the plot is predictable and easy, but it is the writing, the directing and the performances which hold you close as the yarn is spun around loss and taboo, around the privacy of illness and the liberties that get taken when someone else’s trauma becomes news to disseminate.

Adamo (Sven Ruygrok) is a young Italian television writer. His job, though, isn’t what he dreamed it would be. His return to Grazia (Dorothy Ann Gould), his long-suffering mum, in the town of Palermo, isn’t either. A retired school teacher, she’s lonely, depressed and she’s hiding some monster secrets of her own, and they’re not all in the pedestal beside her armchair.

This play is a tribute to the vocation of teaching as it is about an adoration of Audrey Hepburn. It catches a hint of Goodbye Mr Chips, the classic novella, as it contemplates the medium of the soap opera, which is a story that is never meant to end, as it embraces all that comes with needing to be alone in a time of worry. So, what you get is a clear and unpretentious narrative trajectory of broken dreams, messages in bottles and the rediscovery of an almost bald toy koala bear. It’s a work that is about letting go as much as it is about making mistakes and understanding the fallibility of a parent. Or a child.

It’s a beautiful, tender work with spiky barbs in it, not to forget a box of unreceived letters between an absent father and his growing boy, that prevent a clear slip into unadulterated maudlin. Coupled with 1970s evocative style in its lamps and room dividers, it is a simply constructed piece that is easy on the eye and balm to the heart. With Gould opposite Ruygrok, an energy is evoked that gives credibility and agony to the characters and their plight. But ultimately the work is never allowed to immerse itself in tears or recrimination. There’s a lightness to the director’s touch which leaves you buoyant. It’s the kind of work that reminds you what the medium of theatre is all about.

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