Dark comedy is a tough genre. To laugh, but to feel pain, to start, but still sympathise, is a tough balancing act. When you add that Cosi, which opened this week at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington, is not only a dark comedy, but is set in a mental asylum, well, when you settle down into the intimate space of the back-of-the-pub venue, it has to be with some trepidation.
But after a slightly slow expository first 20 minutes, it becomes clear that you are in the hands of a master dramatist. And that's a fact, for Louis Nowra is one of Australia's best-known playwrights, and the skill and the experience shows here in the balance of laughter and pain.
And the language is a delight – no surprise to this Australian-born reviewer, who recalls studying a play at high-school in which parliamentarians were called "scrufulous sheep", but there were shocked goggles in the London audience at lines such as "He's as testy as a ram wanting to get into the ewe paddock", but by the time we got to "you know what culture is to most Australians – what grows on stale cheddar" they were right in the swing.
But Nowra doesn't need specifically Australian references to have fun with language: a particular focus is the problems the transsexual inmate Ruth (Neil Summerville) has with illusion and reality. As she explains: "I can deal with things being an illusion or reality but not at the same time."
There's plenty of illusion in this tale, however, at least in the minds of the characters, as the inmates of an early 70s Australian asylum meet the young director Lewis (Matthew Burton) who's been employed to help them produce a play. Some cheerful simple comedy would seem in order, although Lewis has his heart set on Brecht, but one of the inmates, Roy, is determined to fulfil his life's ambition of starring in a production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutti, despite the fact that not one of the potential cast knows either a word of Italian, or anything about opera.
The casts covers the full range of asylum stereotypes – including the pyromaniac (Doug, played with energetic menace by Mackenzie Scott), the frail and needy drug addict (Julie – Tess Butler), the desperate nymphomaniac (Cherry, Monique Benoiton), the near-catatonic frozen by his failure to live up to family expectations (Henry – David Price), plus the troubled Ruth.
There are weaknesses in the play: the "outside" characters who bring in the "heavy" theme of the play – the supposed parallel madness of the "sane" world — Lucy, Lewis's girlfriend, and his friend and housemate Nick, who's organising a big Vietnam War protest — are pure stereotypes of political activism, never filled out, and that serious theme is rather heavy-handed (and definitely overplayed in the programme, which tries to put great intellectual weight on what would be better regarded as a warm and entertaining comedy).
Pre-publicity for the show has focused on the presence of Neighbours actor Mark Little in the delightfully histrionic role of Roy, but this is a true ensemble production. Burton as Lewis is rather wooden in the early stages, when his character appears merely frozen rather than shocked by this strange asylum environment, but improves greatly as the script allows his character to grow and develop. The others all have their scenes in the spotlight, and all manage to draw real sympathy and understanding.
If any of the currently dark and silent West End theatres are looking for a transfer show, they could do worse than look here. They'll just need a good publicist to sell a difficult description, stop trying to run the "deep and meaningful" side, then let word of mouth do the rest.
Cosi continues at the White Bear until August 24. (With online booking.)