Review: The House on the Lake

Head to the SBW Stables Theatre this winter for a thriller bristling with high tension. Aidan Fennessey’s The House on the Lake, directed by Kim Hardwick, is this year’s champion in independent Australian theatre.

Criminal lawyer David (Huw Higginson) should be meeting his wife at a house on the lake to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Instead, he wakes up in a stark hospital room, unable to remember anything from the day before.

It’s up to psychologist Alice (Jeanette Cronin) to coax information from David, hampered by his short-term memory loss that effectively starts each session from scratch: “I’m Alice. I’m here to help.”

As the play develops, the audience is fed on crumbs of clues. A picture is gradually formed regarding why David is there, how long for, and the events at the house on the lake. Two minds with a mutual appreciation of Edgar Allan Poe prove a perfect match-up. As dark secrets are uncovered, the psychology of lying, trust, betrayal and revenge are questioned.

English actor Higginson displays an astonishing range as David, while Jeanette Cronin adroitly combines a psychologist’s professional demeanour with a quick wit. Both actors’ ability to rattle off an hour and a half of Fennessey’s intricate prose is impressive.

Part of what makes The House on the Lake so enjoyable is the exciting feeling that a twist in the tale isn’t far away. There’s the ever present suspicion that one of these characters is working on a higher plane than the other.

I’ll refrain from getting any deeper, as to divulge any more of the story would be to undermine the entire experience.

The SBW Stables Theatre could have been custom made for Fennessey’s script. The incredibly intimate performance space perfectly conveys the confined hospital room, while the simple furnishings and whitewashed walls lend a suitably clinical feel. The unconventional, angular stage is suggestive of David’s warped psychological well-being.

And the effects department prove that less is more: Martin Kinnane’s cold, schizophrenic lights are superbly matched by Kelly Ryall’s disturbing sounds to convey the time lapses between David and Alice’s fractured meetings.

The House on the Lake is 90 minutes of razor-sharp dialogue ever so slightly tinted with black humour. Most of all, it proves that one setting, two actors and three props can provide as compelling a theatrical experience as any.

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