The Cremorne Theatre stage is packed with nooks and crannies to become the Yeppoon settings of shake and stir theatre company’s latest page-to-stage adaptation, the world premiere of Fourteen (part of this year’s Brisbane Festival). The show is fast moving from the outset, propelled by a dynamic soundscape, which places us firmly into the time and place of Shannon Molloy’s story, first told in his 2020 best-selling memoir.
1999 is seen through the lens of the trauma of Shannon’s (Conor Leach) childhood. Life is tough for young, gay and creative Shannon, growing up in the Central Queensland coastal town. That is especially so due to his attendance at its hyper-masculine, rugby-obsessed, all-boys’ school. From the first day of Year 9 we see his 14th year play out in a series of humiliations.
Fabian Holford’s costume design captures the story’s setting and, along with its of-the-era soundtrack, offers light in the darkness of Shannon’s misery. Under Nick Skubij’s sensitive direction, Fourteen is about conquering trauma through family, loyalty, love and support. There is a real discomfort and some potentially triggering moments involved in the heartbreaking honesty of the bullying and betrayal, which are at the core of Shannon’s story. There is also a lot of laughter and late ‘90s nostalgia in the play.
So slick is the story’s initial unfold, that it takes a little while to realise that despite the number of characters there are, in fact, only seven performers in the cast. Johnny Balbuziente is particularly adept at transitioning from Shannon’s protective older brother Brent to his brutish school bully. Leon Cain shows versatility as Shannon’s disconnected dad, an intolerant school teacher and the overly-enthusiastic Andy, the school’s only outed gay. Helen Cassidy has disparate roles as Shannon’s older sister, one of his besties since primary school and a joyful, caring art teacher. The best scenes come from Amy Ingram as Shannon’s other bestie.
Karen Crone is the rock of Shannon’s family, his down-to-earth mother Donna, but has her own break-out fashionista moment as Jessica, star of the fashion show Shannon is executive producing. Mitchell Bourke makes Shannon’s first serious boy crash, Tom, at-once gentle, genuine and mischievous. This is, however, Leach’s show. As first person narrator of the episodic narrative, he is barely off stage. With gentle mannerisms, soft voice and natural enthusiasm, he gives us a Shannon that is unapologetically, authentically himself.
Unfortunately, experiences of bullying and feelings of isolation and alienation are just as relatable today as they were in the late ‘90s. Anyone who has experienced some part of their youth in the ‘90s or some part of their lives as a teenage in a rural town will be able to identify with its all too real reminders of Lemon Ruskis, dial up modems and the Vengaboys intercity disco. As a queer Australian story, Fourteen is not only important, but inspirational. The verbatim ensemble piece is not only an exciting example of Australian contemporary performance, but a technicoloured trip back in time that should not be missed.
Fourteen is playing at QPAC’s Cremorne Theatre until 17th September, 2022.