Review by Lily Stokes
David William’s The Removalists is a stark study of social conditioning.
When it first premiered in 1971, it spurred the creation of a number of Australian works that critiqued “the very worst aspects of Australian macho, male behaviour”; Puberty Blues, Wake In Fright, Mad Max - the list goes on. Upon reflection, Australian playwrights throughout ‘70s and ‘80s seemed obsessed with portraying uncomfortable and deeply disturbing portraits of toxic masculinity.
In 2021, Australian theatres still grip tightly to the reperformance of these “brash, unconventional, abrasive and (sometimes) funny” portrayals. The Removalists is a prime example. By design, it is frivolous yet sobering, and a predictably Australian pleasure to indulge in again and again. New Theatre’s production was no exception, with outstanding performances across the cast and crew. However, when I work like this is restaged, audiences can become bored by their reflection - we become comfortable with the stock characters we’ve seen again and again over the last 30 years. Although I appreciate that Director Johann Walrave sought to strike an “uncomfortable chord” with audiences in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and recent abuses of power from authority figures to women, a play like this can only do so much. Despite this, New Theatre’s production of The Removalists was still thoroughly entertaining and pertinent as ever - but did exactly what it says on the tin.
The Removalists takes place in the crime-ridden inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. Simmonds (Laurence Coy), a seasoned police Sergeant, torments Ross (Lloyd Allison-Young), a young and impressionable new recruit to the force. In the space of a day, both are drawn into the lives of two women dealing with domestic violence; sisters Fiona (Eliza Nicholls) and Kate (Shannon Ryan). After a particularly severe bashing, Fiona plans to leave her drunken husband Kenny (Alfie Gledhill) by hiring Rob, the Removalist (Xavier Coy) to move her to a new flat while Kenny’s at the pub. All hell breaks loose when Kenny comes home unexpectedly, and both policemen eventually lose control of the situation.
Lloyd Allison-Young (Ross) and Laurence Coy (Simmonds) played the pair of policemen perfectly, complementing each other’s characterisation in equally melodramatic ways. Coy’s comic timing was consistently giggle-worthy, and Allison-Young’s Ross was perfectly unbearable. The duo’s silliness almost instantly evaporated in a particularly sobering and drawn-out scene where (SPOILER) Ross beats Kenny to a near death, helping to avoid a potentially tiresome dynamic. The kitchen window illusion (Robyn Arthur) and lighting (Mehran Mortezai) framed the encounter perfectly, helping the audience to put a hand over one eye.
In the other performances, Eliza Nicholls brought a sensibility to the role of Fiona, helping to highlight the crudity of the other characters. Shannon Ryan played Kate with a reserved self-righteousness, which definitely could have broken down in her encounter with Simmonds. Alfie Gledhill shone as Kenny, with great physicalisation in multiple fight scenes (Tim Dashwood) and an unshakeable ‘okka’ characterisation. Lastly, a special mention to Xavier Coy who had me in stitches as Rob, the Removalist. His comic performance was near perfect.
Although the core elements of this production were all wonderful, I still walked out of the theatre with a sense that something was missing. I was hoping that there would be some way that The Removalists could be reinvented, perhaps rather than just reperformed. I had hope when the play opened with a stark image of Kenny watching television in the dark, accompanied by Indigenous clap stick music. I wondered whether Williamson’s story could be refreshed to focus on the abuse of Indigenous Australians by police (considering the current discourse regarding Indigenous deaths in custody). Unfortunately, this idea was fleeting and didn’t develop any further beyond the opening.
I understand that the limitations of the text are no fault of the cast or crew, but I do feel that these typical and predictable portrayals of Australian society could be made more nuanced and relevant. Unfortunately, I think The Removalists will always be tied to its time and place, meaning that every production (even New Theatre’s) will always be ‘as-expected’; entertaining, brazen and canonical.
After 30 years, what was once challenging theatre has been reduced to formula.