Review: A Life in the Theatre (Ad Astra)

Francis McMahon and Jesse Richardson as Robert and John, photographed by Fraser Smith

Content warning: Strong coarse language, reference to self harm

Ad Astra have opened their 2023 season with David Mamet’s comedy A Life in the Theatre, directed by Pierce Gordon with Assistant Director Caitlin Hill. A punchy two-handed comedy that focuses on the evolving relationship between seasoned actor Robert and rising star John, Mamet’s 1977 script still feels fresh and relevant, an affectionate satire of theatre and the people who make it with a core of vulnerability and shared humanity.

Robert is a veteran of the stage, while John is a promising young actor. With their careers on seemingly opposing trajectories, the audience meets the two characters debriefing a performance and exchanging flattery outside the theatre. A Life in the Theatre tracks the evolution of their relationship as they perform together in a range of productions, from Shakespearean ruffs and shipwrecks to scenes in the battlefield and the boardroom. Between dropped lines, missed cues, prop and costume failures, and combative curtain calls, Robert and John wrestle with their scripts and with each other’s egos over the weeks and months. The rapid-fire witticisms and physical comedy are broken up by a few key moments of tenderness and vulnerability between the characters, which lends an authenticity to their deepening friendship and mutual, often grudging, respect, and these were expertly navigated by the actors.

Francis McMahon played the role of Robert, philosophising and imparting unsolicited wisdom to his younger colleague in booming, overenunciated intonation. Jesse Richardson played John, wide-eyed and eager to please in the early scenes; however, as his confidence and ambitions grow, so does his frustration with Robert’s pretension and condescension. Both actors modulated their voice throughout the ‘onstage’ sections of the play, although Richardson slipped in and out of an American accent throughout the entire work. The chemistry, and the ongoing push-and-pull of power and tension, between the two actors was dynamically maintained by McMahon and Richardson, who also co-produced the work, across the full 90 minutes.

A Life in the Theatre moved at a quick pace, alternating between scenes that took place ‘onstage’, and ‘offstage’ – in the shared dressing room, the empty theatre, or on the sidewalk. Metatheatrical elements of the script also included humorous jabs at theatre audiences and critics, and the play also spoke to theatrical superstitions.

Production design by Bill Haycock included versatile set design and a wide array of props and accessories, which often added to the comedy of the scenes. Sound design by Ben Lynskey and lighting design by Nathaniel Knight helped to transition smoothly between the many short scenes, as well as to delineate whether the characters were ‘onstage’ or ‘backstage’. Gordon’s direction made full use of the stage space, including multiple entry and exits points, and leaned into the metatheatrical portions of the work.

The close proximity of the audience and actors in Ad Astra’s black box theatre only amplified the impact of a work like this – every meaningful glance, subtle reaction, and small gesture was visible, and the depth of feeling in the more serious scenes permeated the room. The silences and small shifts that passed between the actors just can’t be experienced in the same way in a larger theatre, and McMahon and Richardson made full use of this to add nuance and create further emotional depth in their performance.

A battle of egos and talent with a knowing wink to its medium and its audience, A Life in the Theatre is a well-polished comedic performance, the impact of which is amplified by its intimate staging and the considerable skill of its actors.

A Life in the Theatre is playing at Ad Astra, Fortitude Valley, from 2 – 25 March 2023.

For ticketing and further information, visit the Ad Astra website

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