Review by Celia Finter
The premier performance of The Bluff, by emerging playwright Ada Lukin at Hayward Street Theatre, shows demonstratively that art direction, costuming, and underdeveloped characterisation and direction can egregiously alter an otherwise interesting story and performances.
You can be forgiven for assuming The Bluff is set in a remote UK town in the 1950’s, rather than the small southern coastal Australian town “Inverloch”, referred to in synopsis. Much of Australia’s southern coast has been forced into a Eurocentric spectacle for a couple hundred years now, but elements of native Australia are still present and should be highlighted and celebrated in productions like The Bluff; so that majority Australian audiences are able to recognise and empathise with their onstage community. Apart from the lack of accents from the ensemble cast, too many artistic elements led me to believe I was watching a BBC crime drama set in the 50’s, which made it more confusing when one of the characters came on stage with headphones and a walkman/iPod.
The black multi-level sets, highlighted only dimly in different areas to depict scene changes (sometimes rather confusingly, with characters walking into spaces that didn’t function well for flow), boasted the biggest fly’s wing I’ve ever seen! I soon realised this was an artistic impression of a church window but, while it was quite beautiful, my mind kept being distracted by its insectoid form. If the intention was to make it appear fly-like, then go with it! Push the idea of decay and flies as part of this crumbling facade of a community. THAT would have been brilliant! Sadly, I saw no reference otherwise to decay and degradation and flies in a way that fulfilled my desire to see the grotesque underbelly of this community laid bare.
I was happily surprised to see the two lead female roles played by women fitting the age range of their characters. This was one of the most thoughtful elements of the production. I didn’t mind the ensemble, but there was a disjointedness to the casting of a much younger Mr Pocilujko, against the characters played by Ms Harman, Ms Boyce and Mr Adams. Especially when there appears to be a moment of flirtation between Ms Harman’s Esther and Mr Pocilujko’s Ray. I’ve seen extremely differently aged actors overcome these gaps magnificently when required, but this moment really didn’t work between these two actors.
Less happily, many of the costume and make-up choices seemed inappropriate and underdeveloped. Three members of the cast were required to perform in two different roles. Some of them are quite small, such as Ms Harman’s Shop Lady - who I think was only in the first scene, while Mr Pocilujko and Mr Adams performed two characters flowing in and out of scenes through the production. I commend the actors ability to attempt these changes with as much characterisation as they were able, but they would all have been better assisted with just a few more costume elements to differentiate the characters. The Shop Lady transformation to Esther was particularly jarring at the very beginning of the play, and it absolutely stayed with me throughout. A pair of over-the-top glasses and a hairnet or scarf could have made a world of difference.
In what could be called the titular role, Pip Boyce was empathetic as Mary but I would have loved to have seen her struggle with her pride more. I recognised moments where her decision could have brought her so much more shame and anger, but the development of Mary didn’t get there. She was too lovely, it seemed. She was also very beautiful, her brilliant curls standing wild and free; when her character probably called for more restraint, to show her discomfort and rigidity and suppression. To have let her hair out at the point where she finally decides to be free of the lie could have been an ecstatic element!
Finally, to audiences... please, please, please! If you are going to see one of your friends perform in a dramatic play, please don’t whoop and shout at them when they come onstage! Poor Mr Pocilujko almost lost his beat and you ripped the developing tension out of the theatre. The best way to support your friends is to be the best example of a good audience.