The flawed Australian play that’s still worthy of being revived

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Mr Bailey’s Minder ★★★½
Ensemble Theatre, until September 2

John Gaden makes his entry down the stairs of the dilapidated house owned by his character, the elderly Leo Bailey, oozing poison from every pore.

It’s now 20 years since playwright Debra Oswald created in Leo a character we like, despite all he says, does and has done. Gaden brings great warmth to the role, maximising the humour, pathos and extraordinary rapture of Leo when he sees, for the first time in decades, his favourite of the many pictures he’s painted.

John Gaden captures all the ugliness and the shame beneath Leo Bailey.Credit: Prudence Upton

Leo is one of Australia’s most acclaimed artists, bathing his subjects in luminosity and himself in his fame. He has, however, been decidedly less gifted as a husband, father and friend.

So, when Margo (Rachel Gordon), the only one of his children who will still speak to him, hires a new live-in carer, Therese (Claudia Ware), expectations of a long tenure are modest. But Leo and Therese share a strong bond: shame about their pasts.

The play demands a burgeoning chemistry between the pugnacious Therese and the self-pitying, malevolent, alcoholic Leo, and in Damien Ryan’s production Ware and Gaden achieve that, as their characters learn to let down their guards.

The chemistry between Gaden and Ware is at the heart of this production.Credit: Prudence Upton

Yet, as good as they are, the ultimate quality of their performances is inhibited by the play’s inherent flaws. The spanners Oswald throws in the workings of the plot feel structurally predictable, and the turning points are too pat, as when Leo instantly agrees to give up booze on the promise of Therese taking him on outings, or when Margo suddenly turns on Therese. There are also word choices and lines that are incongruous for the characters.

The role of Margo is a tricky one to nail, and Gordon initially struggles to blend the requisite primness with resentment, without becoming too arch.

The fourth actor, Albert Mwangi, is more consistent, albeit in the easier roles of firstly the despicable Gavin, and then Karl, the improbably obliging handyman who can see the good in Leo, and is more than a little keen on Therese.

While it’s a play in which more dots could be left for us to connect ourselves, it’s also more than worthy of this revival because it plumbs considerable depths in the relationship between artistry and humanity, and between baseness and forgiveness.

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