Review by Michelle Drinnan
I had the privilege of attending Away at Theatre works recently. The definitive Australian play by Michael Gow was staged at Theatreworks a lovely contemporary home style building right near Acland street in St Kilda. Away is right up there as classic Australian writing alongside Cosi and Dimboola. Set in 1958, it tells the intervening story of three connected families all holidaying on the Gold Coast in different means. Each family has their own personal battles as learn more about the characters. The play consists of a main cast of eight each who also play aside characters in the stories of the other families. The director Steven Mitchell Wright also chose the use of an ensemble who acted as both a Shakespearean chorus and a clever way of moving scenery.
The use of various Shakespearean aspects were present throughout the play as the show begins and ends with references to the Shakespeare plays the high school students are performing. Our young teenage friends and potential lovers Tom and Meg meet each other through performing A Midsummers Night’s Dream. Interestingly the original script begins with just the last monologue from Puck however this production staged a decent amount of A Midsummers Nights Dream as a sort of pre-show before the official show began. I can see why the decision would have been made as a pre show as the actors are purposely playing teenagers trying to put on a Shakespearean play and would never have been a promising start to a play without context! However the audience was confused what the preshow was with mutters of “Are we late?” and “Are we in the right place?”.
Away can be interpreted as having many Shakespearean themes of love and drama, and the director chose to incorporate Shakespearean aspects in the use of aforementioned ensemble as well as costumes of an awkward mix of authentic 60s clothing mixed with the odd neck ruffle or bodice. Attention to detail from props should be commended with even items in a handbag incredibly authentic.
Every actor played their characters to the finest of perfection. Rupert Bevan as Tom gave a delightful awkward teenage energy but his skills were exception when playing Rick as the larrikin Australian on his honeymoon. The transformation of character showed a phenomenal understanding of his two personalities. Eleanor Howlett as Gwen showed superb characterisation as a fed up cynical mother of that time. I especially appreciated her enhanced Australian accent. She supported her fellow actor Justin Hosking as husband Jim to feed off her movements. Justin managed to portray himself as small and anxious around his intimidating wife, and yet more free when talking to other characters. His performance not just as a character but his interaction to other characters was tremendous.
Stephen Tall as Roy had an absolutely outstanding moment with his breathtaking voice as his character sings as a finale. His voice echoing through the theatre with him solo on stage was a wonderful moment. Roy has a difficult character of trying to be respectable and yet deeply concerned and frustrated by his wife's behaviour. I would have loved Stephen to have showed a more threatening side with his final argument thus giving Coral a substantial reason to leave.
What a performance by Linda Cookson as Coral. I have never seen a more perfect glazed over smile showing her demise into depression and dementia. As an audience we felt for this character wanting her to be successful in making friends and trying to push on beyond her sons death. Whilst her interactions with characters Rick and Leonie were authentic, we would love loved a more emotional reaction to her husband Roy in particular in the scene where Coral breaks down.
Our English couple Harry, played by Iopu Auva’a, and Vic, played by Stepfanie Falasca, were charming and warm. Their connection appeared real and we believed this was a happy family. The actors choosing to be affectionate with each other was a stark contrast to the poor relationship of Gwen and Jim. Iopu delivered a strong emotive monologue where we find out son Tom is unwell. A commendation again to Justin Hosking as Jim as a gracious actor allowing Iopu to deliver his dialogue without any upstaging and yet beautiful reactions. We then find Meg and Tom playing in the sand. This was where Cait Spiker showed her skilled characterisation as Meg as she turns down sexual advances of the pushy Tom.
Our ensemble acted as a cohesive strong group both giving reactions to the drama on stage whilst not upstaging. As this performance began with an excerpt from A Midsummers Nights Dream, this ensemble collectively performed as the fairies from the production bringing the ideas from Shakespeare through the show. For some reason the ensemble were all covered in patchy blue body paint which smeared on their various costume changes. There didn’t seem to be any significance to the blue paint and often served as a massive distraction. “It's like a smurf play” commented the audience member behind me to muffled giggles. The play finishes with a teacher of the following year introducing the next Shakespeare play to the new class including Meg. The ensemble member playing the teacher had removed her blue face paint for this character, but as there didn’t seem to be a reason for the paint, what was the significance of removing it? The body paint draw attention away from how great the ensemble actually were and unfortunately upstaged a beautiful scene of the audience realising Tom has probably passed away.
A quick commendation to Rachel Lewindon and Junaid Eastman with a beautifully subtle sound design. In theatre, the best sound design is the one we don’t hear but we feel. In every emotional moment, an underlying music drew tension and drama.
Well done to the cast and crew of Away. Chookas for the rest of your season.
Image Credit: Daniel Rabin