The Rep has done us a service by bringing us this fascinating Australian play set in north western NSW at the turn of this century. Director and set designer Erik Strauts used his considerable experience to manage the interwoven threads of the narrative and the six main characters’ lives. The functional set, along with Richard Parkhill’s careful lighting design, allowed the characters some distance when needed, yet provided a unity which underlined the themes.
Debra Oswald wrote the play in 1997 and it was first staged in 2000, so it definitely has a contemporary feel, and an appealing immediacy. In it we see the lives of the main characters laid open. It’s not always comfortable to watch because the characters are mostly revealing – and dealing with – their own losses. They are all travellers through the outback, and are mostly escaping from personal distress, or are seeking a solution, their ‘sweet road’. The harshness of the landscape is appropriate and necessary in bringing them to that point. Much of the narrative was carried by the actors in monologues, a challenge they successfully met.
Cheryl Douglas, as Jo, carried her critical role with skill and commitment. She grabbed our interest from the opening scene where, in her car in Sydney traffic, she contrasted the excitement of her husband’s forthcoming birthday party, with the shock of seeing him in the next traffic lane kissing another woman. Douglas successfully took us through a wide range of Jo’s feelings following that initial discovery and did well to show explosive anger, great pain, firm resolve and finally some equanimity.
Gabi Douglas and Jackson Barnard were very effective as the ill-matched couple, Andy and Carla, dragging their children and dog in their clapped out car across the country from Coober Pedy to a purportedly bright future on the East coast. They fought and struggled with each other in an authentic and often troubling way. They created the emptiness of their plight with considerable skill.
All this was done with the simplest of sets and props. Their car was the front two seats only, and they mimed the steering wheel, their children and the dog. Gabi Douglas, in particular, was especially focussed in giving credibility to the presence of the children who, as well they might, often misbehaved on the long journey. Barnard was convincing as the irritating yet endearing Andy. He gave a sustained performance of bouncy, fidgety irresponsibility.
Damien White played the traumatised soft drink salesman Michael in a restrained and credible way. Sailor Tylor did well as Jo’s naively love-struck hitchhiker, especially following her confrontation with the reality of re-meeting her first love. The audience was much taken by Malcolm Walton’s portrayal of the would-be grey nomad, Frank. He was a genial and understanding ‘everyman’ in his reactions to the other characters he met, and he evoked our sincere empathy regarding his final quest.
They were well supported by Ash Merriel as the sympathetic policewoman, Josh van’t Padje as the threatening Curtis and the affable mechanic, and Amelia Brzezicki as the receptionist and the caller.
The script itself was clever in juxtaposing, juggling and finally entwining the various stories and their development. However, at times it laboured the points, and it was a credit to the director and cast that they maintained the impetus and interest. Further, while the point of the coincidences in the later stages was obvious, they could have seemed too contrived had the actors not done such a good job in giving them credibility.
All credit to the Rep for making this choice. The production challenged and entertained in fair measure, and provided us with a genuinely worthy piece of Australian theatre.