Review by Naomi Cardwell
Ascending a steep flight of shining white stairs, we’re transported from a nondescript St. Kilda alleyway into Theatre Works’ cosy bar and performance space, the Explosives Factory. The dark warehouse space is sparingly lit with shots of neon blue and pink, and an odd mixture of Grinspoon and REM take us not quite far enough back in time as we grab drinks before the show.
Running at ninety minutes long, the Victorian Theatre Company’s reproduction of Daniel Keene’s early nineties work LOW often feels like a mashup. Two broke twentysomethings drunkenly deplore the lack of table service in the dive bar they’ve wound up in for the night, while a cavalcade of motorbikes roar past outside, followed by a distant, shouted obscenity. Actors Veronica Thomas and Matthew Connell cheerfully raise their voices over the momentary din, and it all seems to fit together nicely. Early-nineties Melbourne - plummeted into recession and harrowed by crippling interest rates - feels like the realisation of the worst dread of 2022 Melbourne, rocked as we now are by inflation and alarm. Economically alienated Emma and Jay hatch a doomed plot to reverse their fortunes, fighting and making love like noisy alley cats as they tumble into a grim Bonnie-and-Clyde adventure set in the heart of our city.
Veronica Thomas is a revelation in her role as strung-out Emma, whose down-and-out drawl and twitchy energy belie her character’s Pulp Fiction-esque existential observations. She carries nearly every scene, capably ricocheting like Lady Macbeth between turned-on ambition and convoluted caution as she smothers her rising doubts by judiciously doling out bullets and banknotes. Matthew Connell struggles to equal Thomas’ energy and commitment, dropping his g’s unconvincingly in his Ralph Lauren jeans and Michael Hutchence hairdo, failing to quite drum up a plausible lust for either sex or recklessness as Jay draws deeper into darkness. However, in the play’s latter half, Connell rallies, roaring to life for Jay’s disturbing reenactment of a violent robbery and commendably honouring a difficult final scene with a poignant whimper.
It’s worth pausing here to raise a glass to the nineties’ appetite for romantic tragedy. Think Celine Dion running in her nightgown from manor room to candlelit manor room, the shock of Kurt Cobain’s untimely end, the glitzy schlock of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, or the oceans of flowers and round-the clock coverage following Princess Diana’s death. LOW is an unapologetically nineties tragedy, best appreciated in the context of its own excess. Playwright Daniel Keene’s unique structure unfolds under staccato flashes of neon and fluorescent light by lighting director Kris Chainey, in a choppy progression of vignettes not unlike a music video. The soundtrack by Thomas Kunz reactively lurches between crunchy grunge, ponderous instrumentals and static dissonance, missing an opportunity to establish some continuity between the episodes but capably setting the desperate mood as the couple boozily take one wrong turn after another.
Director Jennifer Dean’s long background in Shakespeare and most recent stint directing Moulin Rouge give her a unique perspective on both tragedy and excess, and her striking and often gruesome tableaus - particularly as the characters lose touch with their humanity in their grotesque masks - deserve more time and weight. Chelsea Neate’s excellent minimal set is a crime scene the characters themselves complete like solemn stations of the cross, laying down their implements into ready-made chalk outlines as they seal their own fates.
It’s hard to locate the “story of hope” promised in the play’s synopsis, and while the dialogue is lyrical, it feels like a stretch to conceive of this performance as an arrangement of 28 distinct poems. But it’s frankly fun to suspend our disbelief and envelop ourselves in Emma and Jay’s new lows, watching them writhe on piles of nostalgic paper currency, fellate a handgun and inch themselves closer to their inevitable demise. Victoria is, after all, Ned Kelly’s heartland, and we Melbournians have proven time and again how much we love a good crime spree. In the mashed-up world of Daniel Keene’s nineties Melbourne performed in 2022 against an early 2000’s soundtrack, all that seems to be missing from this two-hander is the capacity to take itself a little less seriously as it wears in.