Mr Marmalade

BATS Theatre, Wellington

25/09/2008 - 11/10/2008

Production Details

Wellington’s premiere of the charming, sinister and exposing hit American play, produced by some of the city’s most exciting talent.

With imaginary friends like these…

Lucy (Brooke Williams) is a four year old girl with a very active imagination.  Unfortunately, her imaginary friend Mr. Marmalade (Aaron Cortesi) doesn’t have much time for her. He does, however, have time to beat up his personal assistant, nurse a cocaine addiction and indulge a penchant for pornography. 

Dad’s been gone for years and Mom is never home, and Larry (Byron Coll), Lucy’s only real friend, is the youngest suicide attempt in the history of New Jersey. 

Grown-up behaviour and misbehaviour are refracted through the eyes of two precocious kids to reveal a savage black comedy about what it takes to grow up in these difficult times.

At only twenty-eight, Noah Haidle is one of America’s most precocious and ambitious young playwrights.  He is a graduate of Princeton University and The Juilliard School and his plays have been produced internationally to considerable critical acclaim.

From Sophie Roberts, the director of the award-winning Blinkers and Martyn Wood, producer of last years sell out success Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Mr Marmalade is a surreal, fantastical exploration on the themes of family, identity and understanding.  It is for anyone who has thought becoming a child again.

"…slyly amusing, envelope pushing… extraordinary." – LOS ANGELES TIMES "…exhilarating… alternately hilarious and heartbreaking… through the alchemy of Haidle’s scintillating style." – NEW YORKER
"…scathingly observant comedy." – MIAMI HERALD 

Brooke Williams, Aaron Cortesi, Byron Coll, James Conway-Law, Colleen Davis and Ryan O'Kane  

Dan Williams and Marcus McShane

Excellent performances and design

Review by Helen Sims 04th Oct 2008

Mr Marmalade takes the imaginary life of a four year old named Lucy as its subject matter and uses its intersections with her ‘real’ life to provoke thought about the impacts of emotional deprivation and neglect on a mind being shaped by a bombardment of disturbing influences. The surreal world which Lucy inhabits, concocted by young playwright Noah Haidle, populated by friends and foes both real and imaginary, provides a dark comedy for The Moving Theatre Company to play in.

The ‘real’ plays out off stage – here director Sophie Roberts has made good use of the doors at the rear of the stage to show glimpses of Lucy’s babysitter and Mother (both played by Colleen Davis). The female role models in Lucy’s life are far more interested in alcohol, cigarettes and abusive men than they are in Lucy. The men (both played by Ryan O’Kane) are apathetic and absent. The lack of meaningful human interaction in Lucy’s life has led her to create Mr Marmalade, her imaginary friend who becomes far more like a foe.

Mr Marmalade unfolds himself through a window into Lucy’s world, usually as a result of an appointment set by his nervous and downtrodden personal assistant, Bradley. Aaron Cortesi as Mr Marmalade, in his old fashioned suit, dwarfs Lucy, played by the diminutive Brooke Williams. Lucy’s mistreatment has crossed over into her imaginary world – instead of a refuge it becomes an extension of the emotionally abusive situation she experiences at home. Mr Marmalade’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and violent and their interactions become more reminiscent of situations of domestic violence than play.

Brighter moments for Lucy often occur in her conversations with Bradley, who is excellently portrayed by James Conway-Law. Unfortunately Bradley is also experiencing abuse at the hands of Mr M and so his time for cups and tea and chatter increasingly dry up.

Into this mix is deposited the suicidal little brother of the babysitter’s boyfriend, Larry (Byron Coll). At 5 he was the youngest suicide attempt in the whole of Jersey, yet he has an alarmingly winning smile. A friendship blossoms between him and Lucy, although it is not at all a smooth play-date despite his attempts to placate her. Lucy may be too far gone into the darkness of her imaginary world to appreciate the potential solace Larry represents in the real world…

Haidle’s premise invites us to reflect on a number of points – the over-stimulation of children; the shaping of identity, the dividing line between the real and the imaginary and the negative impacts of neglect. Yet the play never strays far away from surreal comedy. Roberts and her cast exploit the moments of dark hilarity with aplomb, highlighting the farcical nature of the children’s lives as well as the tragedy, particularly with the entry of Larry’s bright and bouncy imaginary friends, a cactus and a sunflower (again played by Davis and O’Kane).

Ideas are occasionally allowed to boil over – the most effective scenes are where adult behaviour is reflected through a child’s perspective. However, the psychological insight is not complete – this is no God Boy. A particularly garish moment in which Lucy enacts a Medea scene with ketchup points to excess and indulgence in the plot. It’s a frightening but ultimately hollow moment that risks undermining the delicate psyche that has been drawn in its heavy handedness.

I’m not sure if Haidle has managed to entirely delve into the compex emotional undercurrents he sets up at the beginning of the play. There’s a distasteful implication that neglectful solo mothering is endemic to divorce and the working classes.

There is, a long history of literature that marries the anxieties of the adult world and the phantasms of childhood daydreams, most famous of which is Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Whilst this is wonderfully surreal, and is aided by the excellent performances and design, Mr. Haidle has invited us down a rabbit hole that really leads nowhere. Excesses of plot strike a sour note in what otherwise would be a sweet confection. However, the style of a young writer is a good fit for this young company.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader



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Review by Lynn Freeman 01st Oct 2008

This is brilliant.  Brilliantly written, magnificently acted, beautifully directed. It’s distressingly funny and darkly revealing. It’s the real theatrical deal, the whole package. 

A lonely, abandoned, smart four year who is far too knowing about the world of adults, has an imaginary friend. Mr Marmalade (Aaron Cortesi) is more lover than friend, a demanding and controlling man who doles out gifts and promises but makes her wait on him and fit around his timetable. 

Lucy (this role was made for Brooke Williams, she is astonishing – devastating and charming in equal measure) gradually tires of his indifference and his violent attacks on his devoted PA, Bradley (nice blend of officiousness and vulnerability by James Conway-Law). 

While her babysitter is having sex upstairs, 5 year old suicidal Larry (a heartbreakingly fine performance by Byron Coll) wanders into Lucy’s life and dislodges Mr Marmalade. 

Playing house though loses its glow when Lucy gets ‘play’ pregnant.  Always the ‘real world realities’ crash into the children’s make believe.  This is the play’s great strength and horror,  how aware children are of the violence, danger and sex that await them and the way some embrace that knowledge and grow up far too soon.

It’s unforgettable – troubling, magnificent, not without hope, utterly crazy and funny as hell all the time undercutting your laughter.  Sophie Roberts sets a cracking pace for her actors who never put a foot wrong.  Victoria Ingram’s cactus and sunflower outfits also deserve special mention, and Daniel Williams’ set using doors works extremely well. 


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The dark world of imaginary friends

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 01st Oct 2008

Neglected children’s imaginary friends are warm and cuddly sorts of people, aren’t they? Well, no, not according to Noah Haidle, a young American playwright, whose play Mr. Marmalade takes us into the imaginary and horrific world of the four year-old, lonely Lucy.

Lucy’s parents are divorced; her frazzled mother is only interested in satisfying her feckless boyfriend; her babysitter is a callous teenage girl; and her only friend, Larry, has peculiar imaginary friends too, but not as peculiar as Lucy’s Mr. Marmalade.

Noah Haidle explores in a dark cartoon-like manner how the deprived Lucy reflects, absorbs, distorts and reacts to the traumas in her dysfunctional family as well as to the clichéd dramatizations of similar traumas she watches on day-time soaps when the TV is her babysitter.

Lucy’s friend Mr. Marmalade is, to put it mildly, a creepy character. He’s a busy businessman who doesn’t visit Lucy very often. "Why don’t you touch me anymore?" she asks him when she offers him a cup of tea. "Is there someone else?" His brief case is full of drugs, sex toys and pornography. He has an assistant, Bradley, whom he physically abuses.

Grim reality is meant to be seen through the murky distorting mirror of comic horror. But as the comic horrors multiply to include an event worthy of the goriest of Greek tragedies any reflection of reality or even TV’s version of reality ceases and all we see at too great a length is a black comedy devoid of humour except for the comical outrageousness of Aaron Cortesi’s splendidly bravura performance as Mr. Marmalade.

The only bright spots are tacked on at the end when Bradley gets his comeuppance and Larry gets a friend. The happy ending, like the play’s premise, doesn’t stack up. It smacks of TV soaps. But maybe that was the point; it’s not clear.

However, what do stack up well are all the performances under Sophie Roberts’s direction amidst the fallen doors of the symbolic setting by Daniel Williams. Byron Coll’s appealing Larry and James Conway-Law’s Bradley are excellent as the only sympathetic characters, while Brooke Williams makes the precocious Lucy a volatile, if unsympathetic young girl. Colleen Davis and Ryan O’Kane each play three roles including Larry’s potted friends.  


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Precocious in performance and production

Review by Thomas LaHood 27th Sep 2008

Like your theatre bittersweet?  Here is a sweetly sinister little comedy that is as unsettling and thought-provoking as it is funny, produced with aplomb by The Moving Theatre Company.

The fresh, precocious style of 28-year-old American playwright Noah Haidle is an excellent fit for this young company, blending an exuberant imagination with a cynical, almost droll appraisal of social and moral decline to create a hyper-real world – think Paul Rothwell on a sugar high.  The script sparkles and fizzes with great jokes, dark twists and absurd scenarios.

Mr Marmalade is the imaginary friend of Lucy, a four-year-old who desperately needs some attention.  With both her mother and her babysitter more interested in their respective sex-lives, Lucy is left alone to stay up way past bedtime conjuring fantasies that rival David Lynch in murkiness.  Her happiest moments are when Mr Marmalade folds through the window into her room to join her in a game of ‘house’.

Trouble is, it seems even Mr Marmalade, a big shot at ‘the office’ has little time for Lucy.  Increasingly he is reneging on their playdates, sending his personal assistant Brendan in his stead.  It turns out Mr. Marmalade is a brute – violent, deviant, addicted to cocaine, more Dennis Hopper than Drop Dead Fred.  Feeling under-appreciated, Lucy switches her affections to five-year-old Larry, the youngest suicide attempt in New Jersey and for the first time discovers real friendship.  But Mr Marmalade doesn’t want to share his little girl…

The cast shine uniformly in bringing this sticky wonderland to life.  As Lucy, Brooke Williams is crackling with electrical intensity from start to finish.  The role, in its naïve sexuality, recalls her own creation Lottie in Porcelain Grin (Bats, 2007), but with a tighter script her virtuosity is much better showcased.  Byron Coll’s Larry is outstanding – he had the opening night audience in stitches for several minutes from his first entrance, without delivering a single line.  Both actors inhabit their child characters with immaculate physicality, such that no matter how far the script stretches our belief with their dialogue they remain undeniable pre-schoolers.

Aaron Cortesi makes for a wonderfully elasticated Mr Marmalade.  With his height and his rubbery face he seems convincingly unreal, as if emerged from the crack in the windowsill.  His character is deployed with a louche seediness that makes me think of Nick Cave or Tom Waits.  And as the battered, bruised and be-gloved Bradley, James Conway-Law positively shivers with repressed sensuality, a truly haunted homo.  Colleen Davis and Ryan O’Kane fill out the remaining roles with aplomb.

Director Sophie Roberts is well attuned to Haidle’s ideas, quite correctly recognising in the programme notes that "Mr Marmalade is a celebration of the world of make believe, however dark its vision."  She deftly juggles the shock factor of the script with the tender search for "solace and friendship" that underlies it.  And the talking plants, brought so vividly to life by Victoria Ingram’s costumes, must have tickled her personal proclivities.

The production design is also empathetic to Haidle’s vision, evoking an edgy twilight zone dimly lit by TV screens, in which fantasy and reality blur.  The use of colour in the costumes and props strengthens the theme of make-believe, and keeps the stage bright and alive.  There is a minor sightline problem that makes the portal through which Mr Marmalade and Brendan emerge slightly clumsy, but it does little to detract from the momentum of the play as a whole.

It’s a precocious play, and this precocity is matched in performance and production.  In all, The Moving Theatre Company have faithfully followed a winning recipe to create Mr Marmalade, resulting in a pithy, sugary treat that is sure to excite your theatrical tastebuds.


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