The Sydney Theatre Company is having a moment of political pointedness. Not quite as hot button as Kryptonite over at Wharf 1, Andrew Upton’s new adaptation of Children Of The Sun at the Opera House is nevertheless after something similar: a portrait of the times in which we live by way of the personal and domestic.

Maxim Gorky’s play of not-quite-aristos on the march to ruin, written in 1905, was eerily prescient, and watching it you’d be forgiven for thinking it had been written in the ’20s. Protasov (Toby Truslove) is a chemist, living with his wife Yelena (Justine Clarke) and sister Liza (Jacqueline McKenzie) in the family home. They’re presided over by Nanny, and a conga line of friends and suitors pass through. In the 21st century we’d diagnose them all with an acute case of arrested development. Liza is consumed with existential dread, and her unease seems vindicated when the household begins to hear ominous rumblings from the local village. The townspeople are agitated and their hostility seems set to spill over.

Upton’s adaptation jettisons some characters from Gorky’s original, but it still feels overstuffed. Characters come on and off at a rate of knots and it’s hard to get much of a purchase on any of them. Partly this is down to tone: we flit between the jocular and the ostensibly tragic with frightening speed. Some characters seem dimensional – notably the women – while others are little more than cartoon buffoons (most of the men). Which is a shame, because there are superb things here: most strikingly the set by David Fleischer, Max Lyandvert’s music, and the performances by Clarke and McKenzie. But Upton’s patented ockerisms hang thickly over all. It’d be a neat trick to veer from the broadly farcical to the deeply felt on a dime; this production hasn’t pulled it off.

2.5/5 stars

Children Of The Sun is playing at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until Saturday October 25.

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