Disapol Savetsila is the youngest playwright to ever be programmed in Sydney Theatre Company’s main stage season, at just 23 years of age. His wrote the first draft of his first full-length play, Australian Graffiti, back when he was just 19 and the play has been in development with the company for a significant period of time.
It follows Ben (Mason Phoumirath), a teenage Australian-born Thai boy, whose determined and authoritative mother Baa (Gabrielle Chan) has taken him from country town to country town, across NSW, trying to establish a successful Thai restaurant business.
Although most Australian country towns have an Asian restaurant — and the families that operate them are frequently the only Asian people living in that particular town — Baa, Ben, and the three Thai workers who travel with them have never found a place that welcomes their food and business.
The events of Australian Graffiti unfurl not long after they’ve established a new restaurant in what might be the most insular town they’ve encountered yet. When graffiti, written in Thai, appears on one of the town’s beloved churches, the townspeople seek to uncover which of the five Thai people is the culprit and drive them all out of town.
Ben has started to find connections in the town and has made his first ever friend outside the restaurant, Gabby (Airlie Dodds). But soon enough even she turns against him for bringing change to the town.
In a recent interview with Time Out Sydney, Savetsila said: “In the Lotus salon we talked about ‘occupying the hyphen’ of being Asian-Australian: sitting within that space between those two cultures and two worlds. A lot of this play came from that place of confusion, of feeling caught between the two.”
Arguably the most successful part of the play is how well it negotiates that divide, particularly through Ben’s experiences as a young man deeply connected to Thai culture and his ancestry, but wanting to feel a part of “Australian society”.
There are sections of dialogue — and a very individual, bleakly funny style — that suggest Savetsila certainly has what it takes to be a significant voice in Australian theatre. There’s great and undeniable promise in his work.
But the play never quite finds a consistent expression in its magical realism; its plotting frequently falls flat, a couple of dramatic turns are unearned, some of the relationships are underdeveloped, and it lacks an effective dramatic shape.
Director Paige Rattray’s production doesn’t manage to solve many of these problems, and adds a few of its own. The entire performance takes place in one rather cavernous, nondescript backroom of the restaurant (designed by David Fleischer) that adds little sense of place, even with the artfully chipped tiles and missing fluorescent lightbulbs. It’s also hardly the claustrophobic space suggested by the script.
Savetsila’s play finds its energy in the feeling that these people are trapped within their restaurant while the world happens around them. But it also means there’s very little sense of the country town that’s just outside the door — our only clues as to the town come from Gabby, who could be developed into a much more interesting character, and her policeman father Ryan (Peter Kowitz), who harasses the newcomers relentlessly.
The relationships inside the restaurant itself are better developed: Mason Phoumirath carries the play very effectively as Ben and is excellent when he takes his first steps towards rebelling against his mother. Gabrielle Chan is wonderfully strict and unshakeable as Baa, until the pressure of the situation forces her to reconsider her plan.
There’s also good work from Kenneth Moraleda as Boi, Srisaco Sacopraseuth as the recently deceased chef Loong, and Monica Sayers as Nam, desperate to find the best way to support her daughter back home in Thailand. Airlie Dodds makes the best of her role, although there’s very little stage time for her to evolve her relationship with Ben, while Peter Kowitz is appropriately arrogant and domineering.
For a first full-length play, Australian Graffiti is a solid work. But when it’s standing on a Sydney Theatre Company main stage — just next door a magnificently assured production of a magnificently assured play is showing — audiences may well expect STC to have developed the play a little further.
But it’s unsurprising that the company was intrigued by Savetsila’s voice. Hopefully that relationship will continue.