It’s not often that a dramatic play comes along that so generously pays out the trifecta to the audience. The New Theatre’s production of The Removalists does this in spades. With an outstanding script, flawless acting and incisive direction, the audience virtually has no choice but to return home fully satisfied! Written by David Williamson in the early 1970s, the piece – which deals with domestic violence, drunkenness, police brutality and morality – hit a raw nerve with Australians. One reason for its success is the subtle use of humour and shock to prompt audiences to squirm.
There are two simple settings where the action takes place: a police station in Melbourne and a nearby apartment. It starts with Sergeant Simmonds (Laurence Coy) finishing a crossword puzzle while his new rookie, Constable Ross (Lloyd Allison-Young), stands nearby, nervously awaiting instructions. Finally, after a long silence, Simmonds quizzes Ross about his father’s occupation. The conversation is awkward and sets up the power dominance of the police hierarchy. The young constable listens to pearls of wisdom such as “Stuff the rule book up your arse”; “there are two types of policemen – bums and very smart men”; and if you do not adapt to police ways “you’ll stagger through life like a blind man in a brothel”. This is the police mentoring program a la the 1970s.
Two sisters, Kate (Shannon Ryan) and Fiona (Eliza Nicholls), enter the police station to report Fiona’s husband Kenny (Alfie Gledhill) for beating her up. Sergeant Simmonds sees this as an ideal learning experience for Constable Ross and attempts to assign the case to him. Insulted by this apparent disregard for the importance of their matter, Kate objects strongly enough to force Simmonds to take charge. The sergeant later tells Ross there may be sexual favours from the sisters. Sergeant Simmonds agrees to help Fiona get her furniture out of the apartment before attending to arrest Kenny for assault. A removalist, Rob (Xavier Coy), has been arranged but he arrives when Kenny is home.
The story moves fast from there and involves the heavy hand of the sergeant and constable. With the threat of violence from the police to Kenny, Kenny to the police, Kenny to Fiona, Kenny to Kate and Kenny to the removalist, the tension heightens. With a believable and realistic plot, what ensues is an uncomfortable watch. Our view of justice, morality, ethics and fairness are twisted as we sympathise with a perpetrator who becomes a victim.
Coy’s is a convincing portrayal. With his stocky build, trusting yet sinister facial expressions and powerful body language, he plays the racist and chauvinistic sergeant with worrying ease. Allison-Young’s demeanour captures the initial innocence of the constable. His frenzy later in the play is spellbinding. Nicholls is cogent as a woman suffering verbal and physical abuse. Kate is confident, strong and no-nonsense, qualities Ryan channels.
Gledhill expresses the essence of his character – a rogue, wife-beater, full of self-loathing, who can still engender audience sympathy – well. Coy shines in his role as the removalist, the archetype Aussie larrikin, hard working but not really giving a stuff about what is happening around him as long as it doesn’t affect his activities. He demonstrates the art of indifference to others’ suffering.
Director Johann Walraven and his creative team excel. The sets are simple but effective. I liked how the police station and apartment remained on stage together. Moments of police brutality occurring in the shadow of the justice system jolt us to reflect on present and past failings in law-enforcement. If you find yourself laughing uncomfortably in confronting scenes, you are a victim of Williamson’s talent to unnerve the audience. There is a lot to take from The Removalists. Although written 50 years ago, it remains a contemporary and riveting story.
The Removalists is playing at New Theatre, 542 King Street, Newtown until 22 May 2021. Bookings: www.newtheatre.org.au
For more of Paul Kiely’s writings on theatre, check out Absolute Theatre