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Review: Wake in Fright at the Malthouse Theatre

By Lucinda Naughton

The adaptation of the well-known Australian novel, Wake in Fright, by Kenneth Cook (1961), is impressively bold and captivating theatre.

The play follows John Grant who is an educated teacher passing through the fictional town of Bundanyabba; he doesn’t like the outback but must work there to pay off his student loan. However, before his flight home to Sydney, John loses his money in a two-up game while drunk. He realises he must stay and work in order to go home, so he has to join the locals in the heat and beer of Bundanyabba. The locals’ friendly hospitality is slowly realised to be only a veneer over something sinister, their discontent for newcomers apparent from the beginning.

Now, how does this become a one-woman show at the Malthouse? Through the incredible talents of director and writer, Declan Greene, and star, Zahra Newman. The two join forces to create truly intense and confronting theatre. Greene’s adaptation is very intriguing, and I think Newman pulls it off with ease; she is such a creative story-teller.

Newman’s talent and intimacy with her audience drives the play on with a force I think only few could deliver. She expertly narrates and acts out the story of John Grant, showcasing her incredible vocal technique through use of many different accents and impressions of all the characters that are all too familiar. The play opens with Newman undressing from a mascot costume, completely unafraid to talk directly to her audience and feed off reactions – “I’m not one of those actors who ignore their audience”. It feels like a stand-up bit as she tells personal anecdotes, easily disarming us, before gradually unleashing the psychological spiral, beginning with the shocking reason behind the mascot bear costume.

From the comic lightness in the beginning of the play, the subtle transition into the narrator for John’s story with such tact that you barely notice, to the gradual descent into madness, Newman is constantly engaging at every stage of the narrative, showing her incredible range and utter captivation. Even in the most intense scenes, Newman whips out a gag that is funny in its genuineness, never failing to break the tension without losing it.

The lighting and sound design in Wake in Fright, is also standout, complimenting Newman’s performance. The duo Friendships present an incredible composition and multimedia design; while James Paul’s sound design is superb. Alongside Verity Hampson’s powerful lighting and projection design, the sound and lighting in the production paint the emotion of the story so beautifully they are a highly integral part of the play. They create the thick cloud of ignorance and stench of beer the town Bundanyabba seems to be under, depicting alcoholism and gambling highly effectively. For instance, the music build for when Newman narrates drinking a beer and its drops, showing the satisfaction of the first sip, is remarkable. The beer seems to have wiped away all awareness. And John can’t keep up with the locals drink, showing his stark difference. The scene where John is gambling is particularly pertinent, the music loudly and fiercely depicts the two-up game; a spotlight shines centre stage for Newman to jump into when she plays each game. The staging is very aesthetically satisfying; you can feel the emotion of Newman’s character as the music thunders down in your ears.

Zahra Newman delivers an unmissable performance in Wake in Fright and the play will leave you stunned.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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