Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Away review (Seymour Centre, Sydney)

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Michael Gow’s Away holds a special place in the collective heart of Australian theatre: a play which somehow manages to be both a sweet and beloved oceanside holiday romp, and a rich, dark and utterly compelling meditation on life, death and everything in between.

Three very different families head off on summer holidays, all hoping that their crises can be soothed by the calming influence of nature and the ocean. Roy (Christopher Tomkinson) and Coral’s (Angela Bauer) marriage is reaching a breaking point following the death of their son in the Vietnam War; the highly strung and demanding Gwen (Sarah Woods) is threatening to push her husband Jim (Berynn Schwerdt) and daughter Meg (Georgia Scott) too far; and Tom (James Bell) knows he is dying from leukaemia, although his parents haven’t told him.

It’s no surprise that this production, co-directed by Shakespeare specialist Damien Ryan and Samantha Young, emphasises the references to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Lear in terms of its style. The play premiered in 1986 at the tiny Griffin Stables Theatre, but has toured extensively and last week played at the cavernous Seymour Centre’s York Theatre.

Ryan and Young have found a sense of playfulness in their production — the young characters scale up and down a timber ramp, representing a sand dune — and give an authentic sense of the languor of a hot, beachside Australian summer. Ryan and Young have managed to craft something nostalgic which still feels vivid and immediate.

The production elements are superb: Lucilla Smith’s evocative timber set transforms from location to location under Benjamin Brockman’s lighting, and Steve Francis’s sound design has plenty of impact. The act one storm which turns one family’s holiday plans on their heads is beautifully realised and reminiscent of the kinds of theatrical storms dreamt up for productions of The Tempest over the last four centuries.

There are some gorgeous performances, particularly from the two youngsters, James Bell and Georgia Scott, who have both found their characters’ innocence and strengths. Of the “adults”, it’s Sarah Woods who makes the biggest impression as the larger-than-life Gwen, who is slowly broken by the stresses of the holiday, while Michael Cullen and Danielle King are lovely as Tom’s parents.

Bell and Scott’s performances aren’t quite big enough for this 800-seat theatre. It’s not necessarily their fault: as epic as the themes of Gow’s play are, his characters are nuanced, small and fairly introspective.

But even if the work does get a little swallowed up by the venue, it’s difficult to resist both the play and the cast’s charms.

[box]Away has concluded its 2016 season[/box]

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