Along with Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Michael Gow’s Away is Australian Drama 101. The play is a classic work, easily able to be revisited and seen anew through a contemporary lens, celebration of which is central to La Boite Theatre’s revival of the much-loved work.
While Gow’s memory play is of a childhood of idyllic summer holidays, we are taken not to the beach of its 1967 setting, but rather the conclusion of a school’s production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which young Tom (Reagan Mannix) has starred as Puck.
The play serves as punctuation to the school year before families depart for summer holidays appropriate to their respective status. Class conflicts are evident as Tom’s immigrant parents, still full of wonder around the novelty of a summer Christmas, are condescended to by the strict mother of his classmate Meg (Billy Fogarty). Middle class Gwen (Emily Burton) is appalled that the working class English migrants will be spending their holidays in a lean-to-tent, as opposed to their prime caravan park spot. Meanwhile, school headmaster Roy (Bryan Probets) is flying his wife Coral (Christen O’Leary) to a glitzy Gold Coast resort for some rest and recreation, hoping to snap her out of her all-consuming grief over the recent death of their conscript son in Vietnam.
From its opening scene, issues of its time of social upheaval swirl around the play’s smaller, personal and human stories, for all three families have their own turmoil and are struggling in some way. When a force of Shakespearean proportions forces their respective holidays to fall apart, their crises are brought to a head by their intersection. As their secrets are shared, relationships are forged and repaired, and new hope is fostered.
Mannix gives a brilliant performance in his professional debut, easily illustrating his character’s development from enthusiastic schoolboy to mature, mindful young adult and Fogarty’s conveyance of Meg’s stoicism serves as a strong complement to this. Alongside them, a talented who’s who of Brisbane theatre fills out the cast. Ngoc Phan and Kevin Spink capture their characters’ immigrant optimism in their easy-going attitudes, masking the painful reality they know they will be facing in the future. As Meg’s father Jim, Sean Dow gives us patient character counterpoint to the blunt force that is his wife Gwen. Burton is brilliant in making Gwen immediately unlikeable, as the highly strung woman always in need of a Bex and a lie down. However, while her manner is obviously hiding a deep hurt, her dialogue is so brittle and her snipes are so viciously spat out that some of the impact of her emotional journey is lost by the suddenness of her character change.
Proberts is excellent as stoic headmaster Roy, delivering one of the play’s most moving monologues. And O’Leary is mesmeric in her delicate realisation of his fragile and frayed wife Coral, ready to retreat into the darkness and shadows that appear as metaphor for her grief.
A textured aesthetic suits the magical realism at the centre of director Daniel Evans’ vision. A swelling soundscape and sepia-toned nostalgia takes the audience into the post-holiday realities that end the play. Shakespearean references abound as a tempest of a storm marks a change for each family. Indeed, Brady Watkins sound design and composition, and Ben Hughes’ lighting design effectively combine to storm us through new year’s eve to 1968 and into interval.
Of era props and some exquisite 1960s gowns assist in transporting audiences away into the on-stage world. Sarah Winter’s set and costume design have a high attention to detail. The round stage works well, not just for audience engagement, but to represent the divide in families. Liesel Zink’s choreography is impressive.
At two hours 20 minutes duration (including interval), this Away is a long one, with not only inclusion of a play scene within a play, but an end of season campground concert performance. Although this does provide a comic balance to the heavy themes of the narrative’s drama, it does drag things out a little. Mostly, there is a delicate balance between the show’s tones, as fantasies and dreams explode from its domestic naturalism, however some moments don’t land as well as others.
Away is a political and social time capsule story about reconciliation, acceptance of life’s obstacles and the need to move forward. Yet, in its exploration of suspicion of outsiders and fear of change it still has a lot to say about who we were through the lens of who we are now. A visit is worthwhile, especially for anybody yet to experience this classic and widely produced work from one of our country’s most significant playwrights.
Away is showing at La Boite Theatre until 13th November.
For more of Meredith Walker’s theatre reviews, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane.