Review by Scott Whitmont
Neville Shute’s 1957 best-selling novel of a post-apocalyptic Australia has been adapted for the STC stage by playwright Tommy Murphy, whose adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s memoir Holding the Man shot him to deserved international acclaim almost 20 years ago.
A story written at the height of the Cold War playing on fears of nuclear oblivion might, perhaps, be seen as outdated and not relevant for 2023 audiences. We are now dealing, however, with a world still recovering from the uncertainties of COVID lockdown; where fears over climate change are rife; and with the terrifying unknown outcomes of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Frankly, the themes of On the Beach couldn’t resonate more.
At its start, Australia has survived the nuclear fallout of a war in the Northern Hemisphere where a radioactive cloud has gradually wiped out the world as we knew it. Life in Melbourne continues, seemingly unaffected, yet our protagonists know that it’s only a matter of time before the toxic mass reaches our shores, devastating their future.
There’s Peter & Mary Homes (played by Ben O’Toole and the luminous Michelle Lim Davidson), a loving married couple concerned for their cherished baby. Mary pragmatically sees the bleakness of what lays ahead, whereas Peter, ever-optimistic, clings to hope and the idea that there might be survivors in America, proving that all is not lost for the future they fear.
They befriend the dashing Dwight Towers (Tai Hara), a U.S. Submarine Commander who, with his crew, survived the short war, at sea on maneuvers. Peter is seconded from the Australian Navy along with Dr. John Osborne (Matthew Backer - convincing and sympathetic as a no-nonsense scientist) to join Dwight in monitoring radiation levels further North in Australia and following a scrambled morse-code distress signal received from California to ascertain if there are other survivors.
Dwight cannot accept that his wife and two children are surely now dead. When he is introduced to Peter and Mary’s friend Moira Davidson (Contessa Treffone), he enjoys her company but (at least initially) rejects her less than subtle attempts at wheedling him to bed her. Moira’s way of dealing with the increasingly stressful crisis is to copiously drink and relentlessly flirt as long as she can.
The whole plotline sounds relentlessly bleak as the impending disaster inexorably unfolds. However, that is NOT the case. The play ends with the hint of hope for humankind and its inevitable resilience.Humour abounds - particularly thanks to the performance of Contessa Treffone as the sassy, ballsy Moira, who ‘steals the show’ in a number of expertly played scenes.
STC’s Artistic Director and Co-CEO, Kip Williams directs with a deft touch, enabling us to see ourselves in each character and question how, faced with similar uncertainty, we might respond to our own futures - with resilience, optimism or fatalistic acceptance?
Michael Hankin’s set design is minimalistic but effective with simple white curtains representing the coming toxic cloud. A long platform (often moving on rotating stage flooring) morphs from being a jetty or a front porch to Mary’s garden and Dwight’s submarine (assisted by a realistic periscope descending as needed from the flies above). The play’s final scene (without spoiling it) involves an ingenious set surprise which astounds and impresses with its dramatic appearance.
The atmosphere is further enhanced by brilliant lighting design from Damien Cooper - with dramatic spots and the use of player’s shadows cleverly projected big and small onto the curtain backdrops.
Grace Ferguson’s music is appropriately haunting whilst Sound Designer Jessica Dunn’s contribution of morse-code signals, dog barking and radio transmissions (among other effects) further add authenticity to the mix.
Like the book on which it was based, On the Beach remains set in 1963. Costume Designer Mel Page must have had a field day choosing the swim suits, dresses and outfits of the era, offering a visual feast of ‘60s design. In one scene, some brilliant costume magic is performed when Moira transforms quicker than the eye can see into the ghost of Dwight’s late wife - and back again.
Given that the American character’s accents did not have a hint of a put-on Aussie cadence, Voice & Accent Coach Jennifer White deserves special mention for her contribution. Tai Hara embodied the perfect American naval officer and it was with some surprise that this critic discovered after the show that he is, in fact, a ‘dinky di Aussie’.
Most of the ensemble plays multiple roles, switching personas convincingly and completely, bringing each character to life. The heart breaks for Elijah Williams’ Submariner Swain and one can’t help but be moved by the bravery of Alan Zhu’s Submariner Sundertrom.
On the Beach is about community and love, grief, resilience and hope. Though it speaks much about dread and fear, it also digs to uncover the best in each of us.
It is said that Shute detested the 1959 movie version of his book which starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire. No doubt, he would not feel the same about this thoughtful, updated and ambitious adaptation which succeeds resoundingly and provides a theatrical experience not to be missed.
Image Credit: Daniel Boud