So many questions at the heart of MR BAILEY’S MINDER. When do you give up on family? Can someone else’s perceptions soothe the damage in you? Does being gifted absolve you of whatever chaos you created to become great? In Theatre on Chester’s entertaining and well created production of this award winning play, the questioning can be highly comic in places, heartbreakingly powerful in others but with a thoughtfulness intrinsically woven. It stays with you beyond its time on the small stage.
We meet Leo Bailey. Painter genius, Australian living legend and vile, demented old man of vitriol long standing. Various wives and children have been casualties and only one stands to keep him from the abyss of squalor and self-centredness that he assuredly deserves. But she does so at arm’s length, too damaged and too abused and too self-protective to put herself in harm’s way. This is Margot and she has hired another in a succession of in-home carers, Therese. Just out of jail, violence learned and compassion innate, Therese is a conflict to herself but desperate to make a new life. Added to this disfunction is a practical but emotionally inept handyman, Karl, there to liberate, for sale, one of the paintings hidden around the ramshackle cottage overlooking the harbour.
As usual for this committed-to-excellence community theatre company, the set on which this drama will play is detailed and evocative. And peopled with characters who are clearly formed and entertainingly presented to us. Beginning with Therese, whose growth, emotionally and empathetically, will drive the story. Alex Maree King does a great job in projecting Therese’s poor self-esteem as soon as we meet her. She balances the defensive and pleading really well and that is a difficult task with such a rich and subtle script. If we do not warm to Therese, much of the play’s impact and all the power of the final scenes would be lost but King develops the character for us with all Therese’s unpredictability intact.
Also having to negotiate a difficult role is Christopher Clark as Leo. The man really is revolting but Clark brings him to a watchable level. For me there are problems with the character as written, not enough delineation between dementia and nastiness and a not very believable redemption arc, including a very convenient recovery from alcoholism. But Clark does bring a humanity to the role and his interpretation of the physicality of frailness is very moving. His physical recalcitrance, sulking and vulnerability really adds depth so that the explosions and manipulations are easily accepted as expressions of impotence. One can see what Margot sees more than the Leo that Therese believes in.
Distance does not mean disinterest in Paula Searle’s Margot. She may lean dispassionately but she is always alert, the legacy of historical hurts. Searle skilfully endows Margot with a cool exterior held by sheer force of will. I loved her work towards the finale where she behaves just like her father. It was a lovely revelatory touch. Margot, after curtain fall, is the personification of the questions that the work raises.
As the fourth in this dysfunctional quartet Ben Brighton’s Karl, has the hesitancy just right and his growth to mature action by virtue of his protectiveness of Therese and Leo is nicely elicited. Especially in the scenes where he has no lines. When Margot and Therese are set against each other by Leo, his reluctance to intervene and his ineffectualness are communicated with a non-verbal clarity that really adds to the tension of the scene.
That tension, and the humour, is beautifully explored by Director Kaye Lopez. She brings the characters into the same room. None of them are too arch or emotive despite some of the hysteria implied in the text and her negotiation of characters around the small stage is seamless and organic. This was on display from early on when Therese, suddenly alone with this old bastard, squares herself to doing the right thing and begins to clean up. His discomforted watching of her and her loneliness set the relationship so well.
Some of the groupings are lovely, around the album for example and the pacing, especially in Act 1 which is so less dramatic than Act 2, moves the narrative forward without sacrificing character build. The taxi scene was excellent. And the finale is created with the perfect blend of pathos and rationality.
The fine work of the cast and director is elegantly supported by the technical aspects. The set is fantastic, solid and workable yet evocative and evoking. The paintings just right for the lesser Bailey’s … the leftover, unsold Bailey’s. There is also a strong interrogation of the text in the placement of objects, like the New Guinea artefacts and the blackboard aide-memoire. (Set Design: Alan Cunningham and Set Decoration: Cate Cunningham). The music is well chosen and the sound effects well sources and placed. (Sound Design: Kay Lopez) and the lighting effective with some lovely touches in colour through the upper windows. (Lighting Design: Wal Moore).