Broken River (Gasworks Studio Theatre) – theatre review

A gravely dysfunctional family is dealing with the matriarch suffering from dementia in the drama Broken River. When she is lucid, Linda Cookson (Virginia Morris) remains seething with anger over her husband, who left her for another woman decades earlier. She is also deeply suspicious of her two children and daughter-in-law Lily Johnson (Tracey Hamilton), who she is convinced is a gold digger.

Photos by Darren Brealey

Lily – a mother of two young boys – is the one who has been doing the heavy lifting since Linda was also diagnosed with cancer. Indeed, she is out to ensure that she is well rewarded in Linda’s will. Her husband, Chad (James William), is Linda’s oldest son. He’s not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. He spent three and a half years in the slammer for gun related crime. Now, Lily is forever telling him to man up, especially so because he has power of attorney for financial affairs concerning his mother.

Chad and Lily have a prickly relationship with his brother Michael (Joel King-Mayne), who has legal authority over Linda’s medical needs. Michael is gay and has a boyfriend named Frank whom he hasn’t introduced to his mother. In fact, Michael still hasn’t come out. Lily is disgusted by the way she is treated by Linda and having lined up all her ducks, simply wants her to die. Mind you, when that fateful day comes, all hell breaks loose.

Playwright Darren Brealey has drawn inspiration from two true-life stories to craft a powerful and intense narrative, which builds to curtain fall. By that time the bad feeling in the family has moved into overdrive. I have one caveat. There is a flatter patch in the first part of the second act, which could readily have been tightened. Still, the script includes a number of shocks, which elevate the spectacle. Bad language is intrinsic to the offering.

Virginia Morris has a ball switching from compos mentis to anarchic and riding rough shod over her carers/family. Tracey Hamilton does a fine job as the scheming wife and mother whose attitude is best summed up by the Latin exclamation carpe diem (seize the day). I didn’t really buy James William’s characterisation as the henpecked husband and wannabe bad boy. I thought he overplayed the extremes of his persona. He frequently went from passive and subjugated to enraged and unhinged, which didn’t wash. I wanted more nuance and naturalism in performance. Joel King-Mayne has greater credibility as the better controlled younger sibling, with issues of his own.

Directed by Elizabeth Way, Broken River tees off on family dynamics and doesn’t let up. It possesses a rabid dog quality and is playing at Gasworks until 19th October, 2023.

Alex First

Other reviews you might enjoy: