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Review: The Disappearance at Chippen Street Theatre

Review By Rosie Niven

After a successful staged reading at New Theatre earlier this year, the team behind Les Solomon’s The Disappearance are back to tell the story of Roger Baxter - this time in their new home at Chippen Street Theatre, with a fully realised design and performance for this passionate cast.

The Disappearance invites us into the world of 15 year old Roger Baxter, who along with the traditional struggles of the average teenager, is battling to stay afloat in the face of distant and abusive parents, a speech impediment that brings a bombardment of mockery, and growing feelings of isolation and a loss of self. Adapted from Kin Platt’s best-selling novel The Boy Who Could Make Himself Disappear and partially based on Lionel Jeffries 1973 Drama Baxter!, Writer and Director Les Solomon brings the story of Roger closer to home, finding himself in Sydney after the dissolution of his parents’ marriage and needing to navigate a whole new world on top of his pre-existing challenges. With themes of abuse, poor mental health and isolation, you’d think this would be a confronting play to sit through, but Solomon has approached Roger’s narrative with empathy, allowing us to bear witness to the harsh realities of his life without feeling as though his trauma is on display for our entertainment. With increasing rates of poor mental health in the past few years, particularly for young people, The Disappearance feels as though it has come at just the right time.

Inviting us warmly into Roger’s world is Gordon Vignelles, who takes to the stage with confidence in a way that is necessary for a role of this size to succeed. It is easy for actors in the lead role to simply rely on their large portion of text to command the space, but it is evident that Vignelles not only possessed the ability to lead the audience through this complicated narrative, but also a deep understanding of the script and its themes, and a charm that elicited a strong investment from the audience.

The Disappearance is a play that commands a mammoth effort from everyone involved, and it is clear that every single cast and crew member put their heart and soul into this production, leading to incredibly powerful moments (heightened by rich original music by Liam Faulkner Dimond) that explored the ways in which we love and wish to be loved in return. These intimate moments of human connection were the stand out in this piece, handled expertly by the cast and reminding us of the importance of love and compassion in the face of a mental health crisis. Memorable performances in this context were delivered by Kath Gordon and Joe Clements as the disconnected parents who seemed to never have Roger’s best interests at heart and provide him only with conditional love (the condition that he be ‘normal’), and Rebecca L Matthews as the Doctor fighting for what her patient deserves when no one else will.

James Burchett’s creative set design utilises the width of the Chippen Street space with grand floating sheets, enabling performers to move swiftly throughout the space, and in combination with Mehran Mortezaei’s mystical lighting design, play with our sense of reality as Roger’s world becomes smaller. The design contrasts Roger’s two realities - sterile white sheets hint at his eventual decline and isolation, while simultaneously evoking childhood in giant lines of laundry that make Roger seem incredibly small, nodding to the childlike world and mentality that many characters comment that Roger is stuck in. Particularly striking in Mortezaei and Burchett’s designs are the strong silhouettes that appear to Roger in times of crisis, highlighting the conflict of maternal figures that whispered words of praise and doubt while their shadows loomed over him and he gradually lost his agency.

While this new work displays strong bones for a future life in Sydney and beyond, particularly due to its relevance in the current climate, there are a few elements that could be strengthened to ensure that it continues to grow. Even with the poignant themes, there seemed to be a level of disconnect between the narrative and the audience and it was challenging to feel truly connected with the characters or see yourself represented in these roles, even with Roger. Contributing to this were some plot points that lacked clarity - perhaps lost in translation during the adaptation - where some of the more subtle nuances of mental health and decline were not expressed as fully as required, leading to what felt like a jarring jump in the narrative of Roger’s poor mental health. I also found myself yearning for more depth of character in the roles of The Frenchman and the ensemble - Andrew Lindqvist’s portrayal as the doting French lover was captivating with a fantastic accent and strong stage presence, yet he could have really shone with some more depth provided in the script. For the ensemble, further work needed to be done to ensure greater variance between the characters they played - at times the only differentiation was a costume piece, which clouded the narrative as we could not tell precisely where Roger was or what relevance these characters had to his story.

The Disappearance is an exciting new work that shines a light on youth mental health issues and encourages us to consider how we can intervene to save a life - and what the devastating impact can be if we don’t. Interestingly, nobody who noticed the key indicators of Roger’s mental health crisis took direct action and intervened, even those who truly cared about him. While this was painful to watch, it is a realistic representation rather than a virtuous one, and an astute commentary on society’s general apathy towards those who are truly struggling.

Image Supplied


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