Review by Gemma Keliher
A mammoth collaboration between shake & stir theatre co, QPAC, and Brisbane Festival, Fourteen was an inspiring and emotional story of a young boy’s journey towards a better life. Utterly captivating, heart wrenching, and witty, this adaption of Shannon Molloy’s memoir was lovingly brought to life by Nelle Lee, Nick Skubij with Shannon Molloy, and directed by Nick Skubij, alongside a talented team of creatives, cast, and crew.
Opening with the “present day” Shannon Molloy standing on a balcony telling himself “I’ll be fine. It’ll be fine”, the play whips us back in time to 1999 when life in a small town was tough, and even tougher for queer youth. Set in a regional town in Central Queensland, it’s a familiar setting to many, and the small minded attitudes and sense of suffocation are all too relatable. Molloy is 14 years old, and different from his peers in every way. In the way he walks, the way he talks, and the ambition and passion within him. It’s these differences that makes him an easy target for the other teenage boys, who have no good role models or other outlet, and Molloy takes the audience firsthand through the memories of some of the darkest moments of that year. The bookend of present-day Molloy set us up for a thankfully positive ending and tied up nicely with more appreciation for where he is after he revisited where he had come from.
Plays and stories that are created out of personal trauma can be very difficult to tackle in an effective and engaging way. What Fourteen has done so beautifully is taken one boy’s experience and made it universal in its representation and relatability. It is clear in its message and how it is trying to make its audience feel – there are moments where you feel uncomfortable or upset, but even in the darkest and most confronting moments shown on stage there is always an underlying thread of hope weaved throughout the story.
The double level and intricate set design by Josh McIntosh was able to transport us to varying locations with ease, and all with a definite Australian flavour. These changes through time and place were aided by Trent Suidgeest’s lighting design, which not only aided mood but played into the idea that we were viewing these snippets of life through memory. Sound designer Guy Webster must have had a ball working on a play full of 90’s bangers, and beyond just setting the time and setting of the play, the music choices were intentional and accompanied the narrative whilst setting tone.
This was definitely not a less is more production. From the set design to the props, costumes, and sound and lighting design – this was a loaded and busy show. Every piece still felt intentional and necessary, elements were stripped back when required – which helped us feel all too close to some of the darker moments playing out on stage - and heightened when we need more (who doesn’t love a good dance break?).
I couldn’t help but think of the stage management team when seeing the amount of set changes and props used throughout, and Jeremy Gordon, Shania Manning, and Nicholas James proved themselves to be a well-oiled machine. The many scene changes were precise, and every new addition of on-stage costume change was seamless and clearly well-rehearsed by the cast, showing a beautiful display of professionalism and specificity.
As our protagonist Shannon Molloy, Conor Leach was entirely convincing in his portrayal as a narrator that was re-experiencing some of the most life changing highs and lows of his youth. Completely charismatic, likeable, and vulnerable, he truly brought this role to life with empathy and a truthful tenderness. This production was a fabulous ensemble piece, with actors transforming into various roles including peers at the all-boys school, family, and other acquaintances. Helen Cassidy and Amy Ingram provided great comic relief in their roles as best friends, among other roles. Johnny Balbuziente, Mitchell Bourke, Leon Cain, and Karen Crone rounded out the cast with brilliant and varied character work. Every side character was so well defined, which in a story that had so many players, made it incredibly easy to stay engaged. This was aided by Fabian Holford’s costume design, which had clearly defined looks and styles for each character.
This production was a strong and emotive experience that the audience truly felt a part of, and it affected us accordingly. Just personally, I would have loved to see some more of the light at the end of the tunnel play out. The program details more about the later successes in the real Molloy’s life which I would have loved to have experienced, but I can also appreciate that this story was enough. It’s enough to simply have gone through a dark time and survived it, and it’s enough to know that success can simply mean finding any kind of happiness. Fourteen is not just a story about pain, it’s a story about healing and the bravery it takes to move on into an unknown future with the hope it could everything we ever wanted. I think we can all look back on our fourteen year old selves and say that it gets better. In the words of the almighty S Club 7, which became a mantra in the play – “Don’t stop, never give up. Hold your head high and reach the top”.
Image Credit: David Fell