Father Familiar

BATS Theatre, Wellington

15/09/2010 - 02/10/2010

Production Details

Christmas is a time for families… You take what you’ve got.

Father Familiar is a story of lost love between a father and daughter. Writing specifically for actors John Bach and Mel Dodge, acclaimed playwright Branwen Millar has woven a Pinteresque story of an estranged father who reappears in his daughter’s life.

“When Mel and John asked if I’d write a play for them I was flattered,” says Millar.

“Six months later when they inquired where the first draft was I realised I’d actually have to write the play… By this time I was on the other side of the world and various moments, lines and scenes will, in my mind, forever be linked to where I wrote them. I shamelessly stole from people’s mouths wherever I went, something my friends and family are probably all too familiar with in my writing. I wonder what the hipsters in the NYC bar, the Moroccan coffee man, and the Australian woman who’d just had sex with a stranger on an Italian train would think if they heard their words echoed in a play on the other side of the world.

“Surprising that what I ended up with was an intimate relationship drama, a family love story, very New Zealand and full of slightly twisted, dark humour. Well, perhaps the dark humour wasn’t so surprising…”

A gripping story of redemption, Father Familiar is a witty two-hander that delivers a powerful punch.

15 September – 2 October 2010, 8.30pm
BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
BOOKINGS: book@bats.co.nz or 04 802 4175

Sam: daughter – Mel Dodge
A piano teacher and lover of culture.
Never made it professionally as a pianist.

Roy: father – John Bach
A cosmetic surgeon and lover of women.
Never made it professionally as a father.

Movement I – Allegro
Movement II – Adagio
Movement III – Finale

Producer:  Howard Taylor
Lighting Concept:  Marcus McShane
Lighting Design & Operator:  Rachel Marlow
Stage Manager:  Warwick Symes
Publicist:  Brianne Kerr
Marketing Design:  Paul Dodge
Photographer:  Helen Mitchell

1hr 30min, no interval

Moved by Father

Review by Lynn Freeman 23rd Sep 2010

John Bach and Mel Dodge, breathing life into the words of Branwen Millar’s script, remind us of the heartbreak that comes for children as their parents age and ail. Also of the grief suffered by people who never realise their potential, for whatever reason or combination of obstacles, yet long for what might have been.

In Millar’s play, we first meet Sam (Dodge) visiting her father in a rest home on Christmas Day. Roy is clever and a little caustic and soon we find he’s also forgetful and vulnerable. Sam corrects him and repeats information he’s heard many times before, and that she’s explained many times before. It’s a process that, inevitably, frustrates them both. 

She’s a good daughter, visiting when she can. We can’t know if he was a good father, at least at the start. When he has his moments of staring into the air, frightened and lost, searching for memories, you have to stop yourself going on to the stage and giving him a reassuring hug. Bach’s performance is heart wrenching, he’s one of New Zealand’s longest serving actors and one of the best. 

As Sam’s rather brittle façade cracks, and her humour turns vicious, Dodge reveals what has corroded her spirit. She is a pianist who couldn’t become a professional because of something that was out of her hands. She yearns to travel and start a new life but instead it’s her mother who’s done so. Regret upon bitterness has shaped this woman, who is as isolated in her life as her father is in his Whanganui rest home.

McKellar-Smith keeps the direction to the point, and the focus on the two actors’ faces. Millar’s script needs some honing and perhaps also some fact checking over rest home payments. But the emotions that pour out of Dodge and Bach, who are both exceptional, and for whom Millar wrote Father Familiar, can’t help but move you.  
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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A voyage around a dad and daughter’s uneasy relationship

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 20th Sep 2010

Branwen Millar’s latest play Father Familiar dissects with a surgeon’s skill the troubled relationship between a father and daughter. This 90 minute two-hander is divided into three movements. The allegro and the adagio take place in an old people’s home over two Christmases when Sam visits her father, Roy, who is slowly and then rapidly getting lost in the wastelands of dementia.

The finale takes us back in time to 13 years before when Sam is packing up the family home in Wellington. Her mother has found a new life with a wealthy lover in France and her father has suddenly appeared from overseas to make some sort of amends for his absences (he hasn’t seen Sam since she was 5) and to assuage his guilt and remorse over his fractured relationships with Sam and her brother Eddie.

Neither Roy nor Sam has had much success in life. Roy’s career as a cosmetic surgeon ended in disgrace, his marriages have ended in divorce, while Sam’s dream of being a concert pianist came to nothing (her hands were too small) and she has become a lonely piano teacher in Christchurch after an unsatisfactory affair with a much older man.

Behind the uneasy Christmas rituals that Roy and Sam perform – opening crackers, reading out the awful jokes, eating chocolate biscuits – there are underlying tensions between them which are beautifully caught by Mel Dodge’s cat-on-a-tin-roof jumpiness and by John Bach’s flickering vagueness and moments of clear recall. Both scenes are largely static but there’s enough tension to keep one’s interest.

This tension that has been built up is so taut that the long gap when the furniture is changed from a hospital room to a bedroom in the Wellington house becomes unimportant because what is released in the powerful finale exposes all the fears, guilt, love, hate and jealousies between the pair when Sam remembers a rare excursion to the beach with her father that has haunted her ever since.

Father Familiar is very much a chamber piece and it is movingly performed by Mel Dodge and John Bach who delicately and then with impassioned force reveal the long suppressed emotions that taxed the relationships of the entire family, and, of course, tax all families to some degree.
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Intriguing, compelling and finally gripping

Review by John Smythe 16th Sep 2010

Not one to spoon-feed her audiences – cf. Noisy Shadows (2006) and Armslength (2008) – Branwen Millar takes different risks with Father Familiar. First we get the effect, then we see the cause. And it’s well worth waiting for the final scene: the precursor for the outcome.

What’s risky is that the first two of the play’s three scenes comprise sedentary conversations between Roy, confined to a home for solo seniors, and his daughter Sam, visiting him at Christmas time. Their ritual with Christmas crackers suggests they are close but something’s not quite right …

It soon becomes apparent that Roy is in the early stages of dementia, having to be reminded that this is his home and Sam lives in a small Christchurch apartment now, not the big house in Wellington. But it’s his constant asking ‘Where’s Eddie?’ and the inconsistency of her replies that infuse the relationship with the intrigue of something hidden.

In a finely judged performance John Bach presents Roy as a gentle old man who loves nothing more than a corny joke and a Toffee Pop until he makes misogynistic comments about a nurse and gruffly puts down his daughter’s talent. Having hinted he is a plastic surgeon, he growls that “Culture is merely surgery of the soul.”

Sam (33) turns out to be a piano teacher who might have made it as a concert pianist had she out-grown her small ‘12 year-old’ hands. Initially, except for the odd darkly comic barb, Mel Dodge brings a slightly forced lightness and politeness to the role, conspiring with Millar and director Stephanie McKellar-Smith to demand we trust the lack of authenticity her forced smile betrays at times. But family encounters at Christmas can do that to you, especially when someone’s mind is going. Why rock the boat now? What good will it do? Keep things nice. It’s only once a year. Well, almost.

The second scene – the next Christmas – finds Roy bedridden in the hospital wing, having suffered a stroke in March. Sam rushed back from Europe where she’d been to the Salzburg Festival and had a ‘zipless’ encounter on a Polish train … She can say what she likes now because he won’t remember. Except when he does.

Roy’s random memory – sometimes it seems selective – keeps Sam and us on our toes, as does the question of her brother Eddie, while we continue to piece together enough of the past to understand Roy left Linda when their children were small, Linda took off with Brian (who was there for the kids when Roy wasn’t) when Sam was about 19, and she’s been living in the south of France with Francois ever since while Sam has got on with her life as best she could.

Sam has had a relationship with Graham, twice her age when they got together: a classic reaction to growing up fatherless, as is her inability to trust an intimate relationship with anyone else. So how come she has a father-daughter relationship with Roy now?

The third scene flashes back about 14 years. Sam – in an astonishingly credible shift from 34 to 20-odd – is packing up Eddie’s bedroom. The big Wellington house is being sold, in absentia by Francophile Linda. And Roy turns up.

This is where the questions that were raised in the first two scenes get answered.  Having handled the exposition in those enigmatic interludes – where Roy’s memory lapses and Sam’s perverse pleasure in inventing stuff to fill some of the gaps (out of compassion for Roy or to punish him?) has brought a tinge of magic realism to the way we see their lives – Millar now ‘cuts to the chase’ with a wonderfully powerful naturalistic confrontation, executed with visceral emotional truth by Dodge and Bach.

The childhood incident where Roy had to be talked into taking Sam to the beach to go ‘duning’ with a Blue Bird chippies box is seared deep in her emotional memory, and at last she gets to demand an answer. But then she discovers …. I won’t say what, but you’d have to be inhuman not to empathise hugely.

The question we’re left with is: has Sam’s acceptance of Roy’s desire to now get to know his daughter better has become a burden or added value to her life? Or is this just the way things are with families; neither good not bad till thinking makes it so?

I’d have to see it again – and may well do – to clearly differentiate the objective and subjective truths. Meanwhile we must thank Mel Dodge and John Bach for provoking Branwen Millar to write them this play, and for asking Stephanie McKellar-Smith to direct it for them (even if though that meant they were in Christchurch when the earthquake hit, and rehearsing on through the aftershocks: a dramatic dimension they really didn’t need).

Father Familiar is, in turns, intriguing, compelling and finally gripping. Another must-see Millar play.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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