Try empathising with three young twenty-somethings from Melbourne. Now try doing it when they’re wearing papier-mâché heads two feet in diameter. Such is the central concept of Younger & Smaller, a play about a trio of housemates dealing with grief, lost virginities, and forgotten groceries in Australia’s contemporary urban jungle. Although treading familiar thematic terrain by building a narrative about the post-high school coming-of-age experience — sublime existential angst and all — a skilful combination of acting tenacity, production design, and particularly whizbang giant-head construction is deftly assuring that SUDS’ latest performance is one to be remembered.
The show opens in darkness and with the air tinged by the smell of fresh paint. As the lights slowly come up we’re introduced to the shadows of three figures with remarkably large heads. Once their gazes rise, the skill of aptly-credited ‘Head Mistress’ Iris Higgs is made evident: all three wear papier-mâché heads reflecting the likeness of the actors beneath them. Then they start to dance; corny but affable moves not unlike their distractingly cartoon-like appearances. Shortly after, the lights bring the theatre back to darkness, they then return to show the trio relaxing in their living room.
Besides the occasional lapses into expressionist dance, there isn’t much to say about the lives of Jack, Elise, and Alanna, the play’s three characters, except that they go about their days as many of us surely do: talking about Kylie Jenner’s daughter, despairing over TV news, quoting Star Wars, and acting out Spongebob memes. At face value they appear functional, if not struggling a little to adapt to the various challenges of domesticity faced when first moving out of home. Yet all the while they face a unifying struggle: the recent death of their beloved childhood friend and former housemate Nick. Although they mostly skirt around the topic by way of awkward silences and sudden conversational shifts, each of the three externalise their process of grieving in different ways.
Imperative to creating an atmosphere that balances biting comedy with profound sadness, the look of the Cellar Theatre was stylistically simplified in line with the characters’ appearances. Doors, shelves, and windows were painted-on instead of constructed, appearing colourful, vibrant, and exaggerated. This served in stark contrast to Amelia Newman’s naturalistic script, brought bracingly to life by performers Audrey Bennett, Sophie Morrissey, and Frank Yang. Impressively, this is only the second time that the play has ever been performed, the first being at La Mama Theatre in Melbourne back in 2017. As such, director James Mukheibir’s apparent faithfulness to the source material and cohesive tonal vision became testaments to the quality and candour of the emotional highs and lows accomplished in a mere 50-minute runtime.
The talents of both the actors and production team are to be commended for successfully immersing audiences in the mood of the play. Sitting in the first row of seats edged almost a little too close to the stage but made for thorough engagement in the drama and emotions of the play — not to mention, being slightly splattered by hurled food. Fitted with their full-head papier-mâché masks, Bennett, Morrissey and Yang did an exceptional job of projecting their inner thoughts and individual identities in the absence of visible facial expression. Yang’s performance as Jack was a particular highlight, enabling some tear-jerking moments during the interludes spent alone with his character. The times each character directly shared their experiences and thoughts with the audience was a humbling show of self-awareness; frequently walking the line between crying and then laughing hysterically moments later. Adding to the sense of sensitivity and personalisation, Bee Wardhaugh’s lighting design during these monologues should be particularly praised for cementing the notion of audience connection and empathy.
Younger & Smaller ultimately presents a fascinating juxtaposition of comic large-headed characters living in a cartoonish set coming to terms with the mediocrity of human experience and the sadness of saying goodbye to people we love while trying to appreciate those whom we still have around. The play captures a microcosm of these friends living together without ever explicitly explaining the whys or hows of things, yet cleverly alludes to the complexity of their greater shared experience. Deep character explorations are scattered along a timeframe that plays brevity to its greatest strengths, syncopating moments of laughter and music as refreshing sequences in which to breathe and laugh along.
Tonight’s performance of Younger & Smaller is sold out. Limited tickets are available for remaining shows on Friday 25 and Saturday 26 October.