Reviewed by Pat Wilson

Described by its playwright, Debra Oswald, as ”a road movie on stage”, this idiosyncratic Australian play examines the subtle ways in which the outback impacts those who drive through it. Physical, emotional and psychological changes affect travellers in Australia’s arid hinterland. (Ask me about the time I was bogged in the remote north of South Australia, far from any settlement, on one of my solo north-south drives… piccaninny sunrise and the song of the frogs.)

Director Erik Strauts has brought together an ensemble of nine fine actors whose individual skills brought Oswald’s vivid characters to life. Acting ability was generally excellent. However, the longueurs we suffered between ideas, between lines and between scenes tacked what seemed like hours onto the length of this well-written play. Although part of the problem may have been opening-night nerves, the lack of pace and directorial flow leached impetus from an otherwise splendid play.

Andy, played by Jackson Barnard, is a manic, brightly optimistic young chap, garrulous and gullible. His worried wife Carla (Gabrielle Douglas), a devoted mother of their two little children, foresees disasters rather than hopes. Cheryl Douglas, as Jo, having seen her husband kissing another woman on the eve of her planned 20th wedding anniversary surprise party, heads out of town simmering with anger and disgust. Idealistic, romantic Yasmin (Sailor Tylor) can’t wait to meet up with her boyfriend who is working on a remote site in Queensland. Laconic Michael, played by Damien White, travels the outback stocking vending machines with fizzy drinks. Since the car accident in which his little son died, he talks to few people, least of all his wife. Malcolm Walton’s Frank, mourning the unexpected death of his much-loved wife, is stuck in a caravan park, doing the trip he was going to do with her, and wondering why he’s bothering. These six characters weave in and out of Oswald’s script, with cinematic scene changes, wry observations and quixotic road adventures. The multiple-strand storytelling is refreshing and intriguing.

Ash Merriel played a policewoman. Amelia Brzezickino was a receptionist. Josh van’t Padje appeared as both a helpful mechanic and a surly Curtis. Four smaller roles, but utterly vital to the work.  Each of these three people brought well-developed characters that integrated neatly, enriching the story.

Of the six principals, Cheryl Douglas and Jackson Barnard had the lion’s share of the work. Barnard gave a crackling performance: hyper, genial and totally unpredictable at all times. (And his brown dog was convincingly present all the time.) After a rather slow start in Act 1, Cheryl Douglas demonstrated a satisfyingly broad acting range, excellent focus and splendid energy. Frank, played by the warm and wise Malcolm Walton, was also rather droopy in Act 1. His work in Act 2 showed just how beautifully he can manipulate emotion and shift perceptions. Damien White’s Michael needed better articulatory clarity and a bit more vocal energy too. His levels of audibility varied. Although his character was depressed, we still needed to hear his lines. Carla, as played by Gabrielle Douglas, was a worry-wart powerhouse with clear, strong energy, a gift for peopling a stage with two (invisible) toddlers, and intense focus. Sailor Tylor’s character, Yasmin, brought youthful naïveté and adolescent obstinacy. Although Tylor’s articulation was muffled on occasion, her acting was clear and decisive.  

Some of the problems posed by Oswald’s filmic text were solved ingeniously in Erik Straut’s stage design. However, the merry trundling noise whenever the two car-seats-on-a-drama-block trucks were moved formed a standard ostinato to each leisurely scene change.

Stanley Tuck and Barry Blakeborough’s set construction was very well achieved. Costumes and props, the province of Bec Claire and Jenny Kwok, always aided the actors and enhanced the story. Sound designer and operator, Sean Smith, made it all happen with balance. (The pre-show house music of “road” tunes was especially pleasing.) Lighting was an unobtrusive but organically satisfying feature. Richard Parkhill knows what to do with a scene and a lamp; his theatrical intuition and unerring eye are invaluable.

Please see this fine piece of evocative Australian writing.  But pray that the cast has over-indulged in espresso coffee before the curtain rises.

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