House and Home: a recommended short-term rental

The Firehall Arts Centre is presenting Jenn Griffin's House and Home.

Jillian Fargey and Andrew Wheeler both rock in House and Home (Photo by Reznek Creative)

It’s kind of a shapeless bag of jewels, but it’s still a bag of jewels.

In House and Home, playwright Jenn Griffin has created a fantastically dark and funny absurdist world. It’s set in Vancouver —  about a week and a half from now.

Housing is bruisingly expensive. Rents are through the roof — if you’re lucky enough find a roof. And, even though middle-aged Hilary and her partner Henry have bought a house, thanks to an inheritance, they’re straining to pay the mortgage.

Hilary is on stress leave from her job as a social worker. And, although Henry is a butoh dancer turned lawyer, which sounds promising, he’s only got one client left and that client isn’t paying up.

The set-up of this world is terrific. Projected text sets the opening scene: “The middle of the afternoon. The planet is melting.” On her laptop, Hilary is glued to a real-estate program in which a couple is checking out properties in Gaza: “They wanted a fixer upper.” When talk turns to the live trapping of the rats that have invaded their basement suite, soft-hearted Hilary explains, “We left them in a field by Costco. I wanted to give them a fighting chance.”

Curiously, a satisfying plot fails to emerge from this fertile soil. There is a central conflict: Henry wants to evict Wren, the young woman who’s been living downstairs for five years. Wren hasn’t been paying the rent and she’s threatened to leave because of the rats. She has also concealed the fact that her girlfriend Marika has been living with her. But Henry doesn’t seem to have any power and Hilary can’t make up her mind. Wren and Marika paint Hilary and especially Henry as oppressors, but Wren is ambivalent about that and neither she nor Marika has a lot of housing alternatives. So nobody makes a definitive move in any direction. There’s just a weird homeostasis in which Hilary and Henry sink passively into desperation, renting out more and more of their living space to survive.

The resulting lack of narrative tension is most obvious at the ends of both Acts 1 and 2; there are no genuine cliffhangers or climaxes. Before intermission, the actors just stop talking and the lights come up. There’s some trumped-up excitement before Act 2 finishes, but it comes out of nowhere, so it’s essentially the same thing.

Still, watching House and Home is a good time — because the characters are so rich, and because a lot of the acting is fantastic.

Playing Hilary, Jillian Fargey is a force to behold — exceedingly kind, wildly neurotic, and absolutely sincere. You never know where her Hilary is going to go vocally or emotionally, but it all feels inspired. And Andrew Wheeler’s laconic Henry provides the perfect foil. There’s an extended scene in Act 2 in which the two of them, having rented out every square inch in their possession, are sleeping in their car. The characters get drunk and the actors’ delivery of the ensuing dialogue a lesson in comic timing. Wheeler brings the house down just by saying, “Hilary, get back in the car.”

It’s also a visceral joy to watch Sebastien Archibald bring a bunch of characters to life. Every one of them is thoroughly grounded in physicalization: the perky strut of the realtor, the hunched jumpiness of one of Hilary’s former clients, and especially the languid sleaze of Auxley, a rich tech guy and short-term renter.

Sam Bob fares less well as The Pest Maven, the guy Hilary and Henry have hired to get rid of the rats: Bob adopts a comically elfin attitude, but it feels generic and imposed.

Kimberley Ho (Wren) and especially Darian Roussy (Marika) also struggle. Part of that is probably because they’re less experienced. And, in Roussy’s case, it’s also because Marika is a cliché, the white woman who’s too self-righteous to identify as white. Neither of these actors finds much nuance or surprise.

Still, all of the central characterizations rock. And Brian Ball’s ramshackle set — a house that seems to be made out of secondhand windows — establishes exactly the right shabby/surreal tone.

There’s not a lot of structure to House and Home but Griffin has a vision and that pays off big time in terms of character and wit.

HOUSE AND HOME By Jenn Griffin. Directed by Donna Spencer. A Firehall Arts Centre production at the Firehall Arts Centre on Saturday, January 18.  Continues until January 25. Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Comments

  1. Diana Sandberg says:

    I’m so sorry you didn’t care for Sam Bob’s performance. To me, he was one of the highlights of a very good show. He has striking presence, and I found his relentless joviality hilarious.

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