It begins with a phone call in the middle of the night – an unsettling time to hear the telephone ring as it so often means bad news. The play then unfolds over a year in the life of a working-class Australian family from suburban Adelaide, circling back to that fateful moment.

Tony Martin, Miranda Daughtry and Helen Thomson. Photograph © Heidrun Löhr

Andrew Bovell’s Things I Know To Be True is a deeply moving piece of theatre about family, parenting, identity and love. It premiered in 2016 in a co-production between State Theatre Company of South Australia and Frantic Assembly, the renowned physical theatre company from the UK. Now, Neil Armfield has returned to Belvoir to direct a new production. The pairing of Armfield and Bovell is a match made in heaven, with family a central theme in the work of both, and the exquisitely staged production reaches into your heart from its opening moments and keeps you gripped until its shattering end.

Bovell has structured the play around the four seasons, with each of the four siblings of Bob and Fran Price (Tony Martin and Helen Thomson), facing a crisis that brings them straight home to their parents. Rosie (Miranda Daughtry) has been travelling alone in Europe, wondering when her life is about to really start, when she has her heart broken, Pip (Anna Lise Phillips) is unhappy in her marriage, even though her husband is loyal to her and a good father, Mark (Tom Hobbs) is wrestling with identity issues, and Ben (Matt Levett) is flashing his money around to keep up with the former private school boys he works with.

Helen Thomson and Tony Martin. Photograph © Heidrun Löhr

The play is largely set in the Price’s garden, which becomes an analogy for the world; the place where the four children grew up together, and where so many family events have taken place including a wedding. Bob and Fran worked hard to pay off the house, and have always wanted their children to have a better life than them. But now, Bob finds he has too much time on his hands gardening, having taken early redundancy from the local car works, and Fran, who still works full-time as a nurse, is invariably tired.

They are a close-knit family, even though they bicker and fight. Fran, who has dealt with life’s disappointments by channelling her emotional energy into bringing up the children, instantly knows when anything is wrong. What’s more, her hunches as to what’s going on are usually right. She is funny and supportive but brutally honest – so much so that she has the audience laughing one minute and then gasping at the cruelty of her candour the next.

In a lyrical yet natural script, Bovell writes with great insight and humanity about family tensions and love, particularly the complications and emotional demands of parenting: the need to listen rather than to always talk, to accept that your dreams for your children may not be what they want, the sacrifices made, and the changing values of different generations. You never doubt Bob and Fran’s love for their offspring, but at the same time you see their struggle to come to terms with some of the things their children present them with.

Armfield’s production is directed with a beautiful simplicity and clarity. Stephen Curtis’s open set consists of green paving, a metal fence along the back wall, a flower bed with four rose bushes, which are used to trace the passing of time, and a green plastic table and chairs. Tess Schofield’s costumes, Damien Cooper’s evocative lighting, and Alan John’s wistful, melancholic music complete the picture.

Armfield brings his uncanny sense of spatial awareness to the production, knowing exactly how to place the actors in relation to one another for maximum impact, as well as a deft instinct about when to feature them, and when not. When Mark is describing a scene at the airport with his father and sister Rosie, for example, Armfield has the two of them sit quietly behind him on chairs. When Fran reads a letter from Pip, who is then in Canada, he has Pip gently touch her mother as she reads the words aloud.

Anna Lise Philipps and Helen Thomson. Photograph © Heidrun Löhr

He uses choreography now and again to add a gentle elegance and a sense of family ritual to the staging, and the way the actors gradually prune the roses bushes together is gorgeous. Little human touches between the cast also speak reams. The way the four siblings dress their father at the end, as they finally take their place as adults and literally help him find his feet, is profoundly moving.

The production is wonderfully cast, each performance so perfectly attuned that when the mood of the play suddenly changes, as it does several times, the audience responds immediately, recognising the shift. Thomson is astonishingly good as the complicated Fran, finding all her toughness, anger and disappointment but also the love that drives her. She makes us cringe at her brutal frankness, and yet still manages to make us understand and care about her. Martin exudes Bob’s good-hearted gentleness, frustration and emotional confusion, conveying a man whose values and behaviour belong to times now past, while Daughtry, Phillips, Hobbs and Levett are each utterly convincing in their roles.

Tony Martin and Tom Hobbs. Photograph © Heidrun Löhr

Things I Know To Be True is a beautiful, compassionate, tender play written and staged with great humanity. It is funny at times and also deeply moving. I wasn’t the only one among the opening night audience weeping at the end.

Things I Know To Be True plays at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until July 21


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