Reviewed by Barry Lenny
The Adelaide Repertory Theatre Society is back in its theatre again with Sweet Road, by Sydney (Australia) playwright, Debra Oswald, directed by Erik Strauts, who has cast the production well and brought out all of the emotional elements.
The play, written in 1997, takes us into remote parts of northwestern New South Wales, Australia It was a time when radio and mobile telephone coverage was virtually nonexistent in the outback. That inability to communicate, anywhere, any time, something which we take for granted today, that isolation, is essential to the story. The play is a combination of sections of action, and a number of monologues delivered to the audience. Some of the acting was a little mechanical to begin with, no doubt due to first night nerves, but those concerned settled down quickly and their characters soon developed.
Brent is turning 40 and his wife, Jo, is heading home with a very special birthday cake, modelled on his prized sailing trophy, when she happens to see him in his car kissing another woman, Shelley, the young, pregnant girl from the office. She is, naturally, distraught, and begins driving, aimlessly, at first. To take her revenge, she decides to take his trophy and throw it into the middle of a dry salt lake, immediately heading off on a road trip to Lake Mullagunyah. Australia has a good many lakes that very rarely contain water. Her journey becomes an obsession.
Jo is played by the ever-reliable, Cheryl Douglas, who turns in another of her finely nuanced performances. From the enthusiastic excitement over the coming celebration, to the shock of discovering Brent’s infidelity, in the face of putting their business above thoughts of ever having children, to ever-increasing declining health as Jo drives on without pausing for sleep, food, or water, determined to reach her destination. Douglas presents this descent into madness so convincingly that you want to call out to Jo to stop!
Along the way, Jo meets a diverse collection of people who are all, for reasons of their own, in the same area, beginning with Yasmin, a wide-eyed young girl in the throes of young love who is hitchhiking to the coast to reconnect with her new boyfriend, Tino, whom she met when he was on holiday. Realising that Yasmin is hungry, Jo insists that she eats the cake. Yasmin is played by Sailor Tyler, who creates a genuinely bright-eyed and optimistic character, later showing her strength and resilience.
Andy and Carla have sold everything that they own and left the opal mining town of Coober Pedy, looking for a new and better life. Andy would be a nightmare to live with, as his wife, Carla, would be the first to tell you. He is a manic two-year-old who has just drunk a litre of raspberry cordial, wrapped up in an adult body. He is the fool who would rush in where wise men dare not tread, over and over again, and then wonder why things always went wrong. Gullible is his middle name. He has the attention span of a goldfish, and common sense eludes him. Carla cares for her two small children, Blake and Nicole, or three, if you include Andy, and there’s the dog, known only as Browndog. She has, as they say, the patience of a saint, until Andy’s naivety causes a threat to her children, when she reveals her full power.
Jackson Barnard is indefatigably energetic as Andy, not still for a moment, and talking incessantly, changing topics in an instant. He creates a character both intensely annoying, and loveable. As Carla, Gabi Douglas gives a fine performance, supplying the rock in the family, adding some convincing work miming the interactions with her children, characters who, along with the dog, do not actually appear. Gabi is certainly taking after her mother, Cheryl.
Frank is a lonely widower, now having the caravan touring holiday that he and his late wife planned, but never got around to, continuingly finding reasons to delay it, until it was too late. He discovers the pleasure of canoeing and decides to tackle a long trip downriver to return to Adelaide. Malcolm Walton’s sensitive performance endears Frank to the audience as we sympathise with his attempts to carry on without his wife by his side. We feel his loss.
Michael drives a van around the isolated towns, restocking refrigerators and dispensing machines with the products of a small, independent soft drink company. He is haunted by the car accident that killed his young son. He is unreasonably angry at himself and unable to face his wife, feeling guilty for not being able to protect his son, even though there was nothing that anybody could have done as the other driver was drunk and fully at fault. Damien White gives his character sincere pathos, and changes his entire character dramatically when Michael determines to change his life around.
In the minor roles, Josh van’t Padje, as the dangerous Curtis, and as the helpful mechanic who tries to keep Andy’s old pile of junk car running, Ash Merriel, as the policewoman, and Amelia Brzezicki, as a receptionist, add extra details and impetus to the stories.
The set, designed by the director, Erik Strauts, is divided in two by the representation of a long, straight road, fading into the distance. At either side are platforms on, and in front of which, the action takes place, switching from one side to the other as scenes change. Pairs of car seats are trucked in and out, and other bits and pieces are set and removed by the cast. Images are projected onto panels at the rear of each platform. The play is lit, with his usual skill, by Richard Parkhill, and the evocative projections were designed by Strauts and Britany Daw. Sean Smith provided the many sounds and snatches of music demanded by the work, and Bec Claire and Jenny Kwok organised the costumes.
At three hours, the play itself is a little long, and occasionally slow, leading somebody a couple of rows in front of me to play with their large screen mobile phone for the latter half of the second act, with the person next to them looking on. Some judicial work with a blue pencil wouldn’t go astray. It is unfortunate that over the last quarter century people have come, more and more, to expect their entertainment to be short, and fast-paced, in that constant need for instant gratification. Younger people, especially, lose interest quickly and are easily distracted.
For those of us with greater patience, who were brought up on the lengthy works of history’s greatest playwrights, authors, composers, and poets, there is a lot in this play that takes time and demands full attention to absorb and digest. It is well worth it.