It's a strange experience to be sitting in the theatre and forget that the people in front of you are actors. When Gaybies begins, its seven cast members are seated in front of the stage, not on it, on the kind of old plastic chairs you probably had in stacks at your high school. Beside the stage, a kettle, tea bags, plastic cups and water bottles form a meagre refreshments table. At the behest of a roving spotlight, each actor takes turns to speak about themselves, inhabiting each character so completely, through body language and speech patterns, that it is very easy to forget that you are seeing a dramatic work in theatre, and not a support group.
Of course, that illusion dissipates when the actors change into different characters, but regardless of whether the character they are playing is 40 or 4 years old, they still become them as much as possible. Each actor plays three characters, and what all the characters have in common is that they have one or more gay parents - they are "gaybies." Their stories are endlessly fascinating - stories of infidelity, surrogacy, and one character running into his dad's ex-husband at gay nightspot Arq - and told with the kind of off-the-cuff rhythm that makes us feel as if we're witnessing real people telling their stories in real time.
Writer and director Dean Bryant put Gaybies together by conducting interviews with many real-life "gaybies" and then having actors perform their words. Immediately, it is clear how much they have sunk their teeth into the multiple roles, eliciting huge laughs just by taking on endearing and recognisable character traits, like the 16-year-old with a bit of a superiority complex, the squabbling 20-something siblings and the excitable 15-year-old boy. The humour in Gaybies feels honest and real, like witnessing real moments of awkwardness (such as when one character says "partner" instead of "parent," a slip-of-the-tongue that I couldn't be sure was scripted) or self-effacement.
Aside from being hilarious, Gaybies is genuinely moving, but in a way that doesn't feel forced or manipulative. Stories of losing parents' long-time partners, or one story of the many times that attempts at surrogacy have failed, are sweetly funny, full of love, compassion and understanding. The emotion of the piece is heightened by several musical numbers, which begin with characters casually plucking musical instruments from a big blue plastic box. Each actor plays - guitar, ukulele, piano, tambourine, triangle - and sings. The songs are full of lovely harmonies and gently insistent melodies, and while composer and arranger Mikey Bee's (of the band MT WARNING) lyrics are sometimes a little vague or oblique, the feeling with which they are performed drives them right home.
Gaybies is a success because of its fascinating concept and an incredibly talented and sympathetic cast. Perhaps the narrative, because of the way characters come and go, can become a little jumbled, but that is a very, very minor complaint. There is a huge amount here to enjoy - it will make you laugh and cry at the same time - and its message is crystal clear. I said above that the set-up resembles a support group, but if there's just one message to take away from Gaybies, it's that with extra parents, the people represented here have more love and support than they could ever need.
Gaybies is running at Darlinghurst's Eternity Playhouse until the 8th of March, as part of the 2015 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras program. See performance times and buy tickets here.
Photos by Helen White.