Use all your well-learned politesse or I’ll lay your soul to waste… Review of Julian Hobba’s ‘The Slip Lane’

There’s a species of literature that draws audience’s attention to overlooked places.  The work isn’t about places in general or people in general, but is instead grounded to a specific area.  Or, perhaps more accurately, grounded to a hyperreal specific area: the audience’s attention is directed to this or that feature, the particularity of the area is exaggerated for effect comic or sentimental, and the area is imbued with a personality and distinctiveness as if to distinguish it from every other indistinguishable area.

The Slip Lane by Julian Hobba is a thoroughly weird play that has an odi et amo tension with Gungahlin — a northern suburb of the Australian capital.  Gungahlin is comfortable, maybe too comfortable.  Its residents are mostly content, perhaps frustrated at how content they are.  Services are convenient, the landscape is unchallenging, and everything is bland.  It is simultaneously presented with affection and with a condescension: ‘It’s such a boring place!  Look how boring it is!  We love it because it’s so boring.’

This mayonnaise on white bread location to the play is the backdrop to a dark comedy about one man’s struggle with the Big Other.  Although it has been described as a political satire, it’s really more of an apolitical farce.    The protagonist is a man who is obsessed with a minor, very minor issue: he hates traffic and thinks that congestion would be solved if a slip lane were built at the intersection of two roads in Gungahlin.  This miserly obsession is all-consuming but he struggles to communicate the importance of the issue to others.  His will for change is thwarted by the uncaring, disinterested, distant bureaucracy, ignored by the woman he fancies (who has two young children, can’t sleep, and fears that there’s either a stalker or a creature looking through her windows at night), and ridiculed by the demon king who has taken up residence in a Gungahlin field.

The performances in the play are all excellent and the restrained use of technology to create specific theatrical effects is very good.  And the play is fun, capturing a cynical, bleak topic — the struggle of one man to have even a tiny impact on the world — without itself being a cynical and bleak spectacle.  Frequent references are made to the protagonist’s love of Game of Thrones, fleshing out the character as a man who doesn’t have much else in his life beyond television shows and high speed internet.  But the references also distinguish the differences in the narratives: Game of Thrones is also about a cynical, bleak topic — the amorality of power — but succumbs to it, being relentlessly miserable.  A lot of that has to do with the difference in the characters.  In Game of Thrones, we have lords of here and there who lead armies.  In The Slip Lane, we have a sad clown who shouts into the void about the one thing that matters to him: traffic congestion.

The play struggles in two key aspects.  The first is in its delivery of key information that the audience needs to follow the plot.  As the protagonist’s struggle with the Big Other causes him to go to increasingly elaborate strategies of embodying and replicating its absurdity, the off-stage actions become increasingly detailed and difficult to follow.  Things that become major plot points are hidden within dialogue that lay false scents, conveying an entirely different outline of what eventually becomes the case.

The second is in its presentation of the key female character, and the lack of inertia in her world.  There appears to be some attempt to distinguish the two leads around the seriousness of their problems: she fears that there is some kind of beast presenting a physical threat to her, while he’s upset about waiting in traffic; she was starting out on a promising career in academia but had to flee a sexual predator, while he was happily married until his wife left him for a balloonist.  The problem is that her issues don’t seem to sustain throughout the play.  Details of her life are raised as one-shot issues to move the male character’s plot forward.  Why does he come into her life?  Because she fears for her safety.  Why is he unable to pursue a relationship with her?  Because she has A Past.  But when the male character needs rescuing from himself, she no longer has issues (or, it seems, children) and can appear as a deus ex machina to resolve the male character’s dilemma.

Neither of these issues is fatal to the play.  If you enjoy Peep Show or the first two seasons of Misfits (which you should), you will enjoy The Slip Lane.

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