By Carly Fisher
Oriel Gray is not an Australian playwright you would have learnt about in school drama, nor would many Australians, even theatre fanatics, probably know the name of. Gray penned The Torrents and other works in the 1950s and, despite being the joint winner of the prestigious Playwrights’ Advisory Board Competition with Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in 1955, only Adelaide has seen a mainstage Theatre Company do a production of this show since then.
It is this information that we are set up to know before the curtain rises as, Aussie favourite comedian, Celia Pacquola, comes before the audience for a few minutes of background information in the form of banter and stand up. If you knew her before from one of her TV shows, from Have You Been Paying Attention stints or from her successful stand up career, you, like me, were probably REALLY excited by this unexpected addition at the top of the show. If you don't know her, get ready to laugh but also to learn everything that, as Pacquola points out, a program would have told you if any of us actually read the program.
For me, I loved being armed with the history of this production prior to seeing it occur - it made me rally for the women that much more because I appreciated so much the bravery of Gray in writing those words initially.
J.G. Milford was hired to work at the family-run Koolgalla newspaper and, despite the excitement surrounding the start date of the new employee, when J.G. arrives, the glee quickly turns to embarrassment, then to anger and finally to a perfect example of misogyny in the workplace. See, the J in J.G. stands for Jenny and, despite all agreeing that this new hire could simply not be more perfect for the role, such sentiments extended only to J.G. when it was believed that the acronym was that belonging to a man. When Jenny's 'female sentiments being offended by newsroom business' and other equally lame excuses are used as an apparently justified reason for why she must submit an immediate resignation letter, Jenny uses her intelligence to prove why the only people allowing emotions to cloud their judgement are in fact the men.
The play follows Jenny's impact on the newsroom, those who work there and others in the small town, included a newly added scene which focuses on the only two female characters in the show as Jenny shows women what true independence can look like whilst still maintaining great respect for those around you.
Based on the 1890s and written in the 1950s, yes, the show is a little dated, mainly in its limited opportunities for great character development. That said, the issues presented in this play written over 60 years ago continue to form our daily debates and news - women are still fighting for equality and so the play remains relevant.
Renée Mulder's set was a highlight of the show for me - a stunning use of the Drama Theatre with a creative distinction between levels that aged the set enough to remind us it was the 1890s but remained current and familiar enough that we could walk in now and functionally use it. Considering the emphasis placed on the theme having that same journey and relevance to both a bygone time but also to today, this was a clever design that proved Mulder's skill and precision.
As her play debut, Pacquola has much to be extremely proud of. Evidently different from her usual stage time as a stand up comedian, which we experience, as mentioned, Pacquola has succeeded in leading this ensemble and offering Jenny a strength that is required of a pioneering woman such as this character, but also a sensitivity that makes her instantly likeable as well. We do not root for Jenny simply because of our 2019 sensitivities and awareness that hiring her is right. We choose to cheer her on because of the grace, the control and the power that Pacquola has backboned her character with.
A substantially larger Ensemble, it is Gareth Davies and Tony Cogin as father and son Torrents that absolutely steal the stage in both their connections with one another and with Jenny. Geoff Kelso's perfect comedic timing makes his performance as Christie a true highlight of every scene in which he is in as well.
The Torrents isn't a masterpiece of literature or of production, however, it is a fun and informative night of really high quality theatre that I would certainly recommend catching before the season ends on the 24th of August. It'll be a show that Sydney will talk about for the year - you don't want to miss it!
And finally, thank you Sydney Theatre Company for bringing a somewhat lost work from an Australian female voice to the stage - makes you think, what other gems lie waiting too?!
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.