Reviewed by Mark Wickett
Road trips through the Australian Outback aren’t the likeliest of settings for a play, yet with Sweet Road, The Rep has created an interesting production that carries you way outside the city.
It’s the intersection of at least five stories of human interaction (or dealing with the lack of it), each character experiencing their own grief, growth and opportunity, each of them on a journey both literal and metaphorical.
Jo (Cheryl Douglas) is excited about her husband’s forthcoming birthday until she spots him kissing a younger woman from his workplace. She drives aimlessly through the night until she encounters a young lovesick hitchhiker, Yasmin (Sailor Tylor), trying to get to her holiday crush. Whilst Jo tries desperately to forget the image of her husband’s betrayal, Yasmin is just as eager to recapture the electricity of her first kiss.
Elsewhere, another road trip unfolds with a young family travelling north in search of riches – or at least, a job and a school for their children. The parents, Andy and Carla (played by a twitchy Jackson Barnard and a fierce Gabi Douglas) interact differently with their invisible, yet easily imagined, kids and dog. Andy is an optimist, trusting everyone and having confidence that all will turn out well; Carla is anxious, resentful that she is the one who constantly underscores the boundaries – tested by her kids and husband.
The episodic narrative moves from one story to the next, Richard Parkhill’s lighting guiding us around a stage set up with car seats and divided by a large highway. The set design by director Erik Strauts is convincing in conveying Outback road trips inside a city theatre, and simple projection (by Strauts and Britany Daws) establishes whether we are in the wilderness or at a service station.
Cheryl Douglas delivers the first half of her story through monologue – mostly directly to the audience, sometimes just to herself. Her careful balance between the trauma of loss and lies, and missing her partner of twelve years, is beautiful and heart-breaking. Later, when her path crosses another’s, Douglas shows another dimension of Jo’s character, softening to friendship.
Damien White is Michael, a lonely man traumatised by events that collapsed his world and White’s well-paced delivery is appropriately quiet – perhaps too much so if we’re straining to hear every word of his terrible shock. As with Douglas’ Jo, his forced interaction with another character sparks something else, and retaining his quiet, shy demeanour, what’s unsaid is just as intriguing.
Barnard offers an Andy that can’t stop moving, can’t stop seeing the good in people – even when it’s not there. As with the others, he shows us much more when his character breaks and changes, questioning his whole life’s attitude.
Gabi Douglas is always excellent, and her Carla combines anxious despair with a fierce protection of her family. For the most part, Carla is the complete opposite of Andy, but Douglas hints at her transformation through the chinks in Carla’s armour in every scene, with subtlety and realism.
Josh van’t Padje provides comic relief with a pair of two-dimensional foils: a mechanic trying to fix Andy and Carla’s car, and Curtis, a random guy offered a lift by Andy later in the story. And from the rear of the stage, Malcolm Walton draws a widower, Frank, so cleverly, so believably, and when the narrative seems uncertain in its next step, it’s Walton who drags it in the right direction.
Erik Strauts directs his ensemble cast well – it’s clear who belongs in which story, and not just in the scene’s staging. Debra Oswald is better known for her TV writing, and this story doesn’t sound like it would work well on a stage, yet Strauts makes it look easy. Oswald’s twists are somewhat predictable but she’s clever in how she overlaps the narratives, and Strauts doesn’t lose any momentum when this happens.
It’s a strong performance from the ensemble, a good study of a broad cross-section of society dealing with grief, set amongst a uniquely Australian experience of the Outback road trip.