The Big Dry review (Ensemble Theatre, Sydney)

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While climate change is never explicitly referred to in Mark Kilmurry’s theatrical adaptation of Tony Davis’s 2013 young adult novel The Big Dry, it’s impossible to watch this play without bearing in mind the potential catastrophe this planet is facing.

Beeper (Noah Sturzaker) and his older brother George (Rory Potter) are living alone in a dusty town which has seen no rain for many, many years. There’s nothing that can grow without water, so all of their food comes from old tins, and all of their water comes from well below the ground and is painstakingly (and not very effectively) filtered through scrap material. There are regularly massive dust storms which are threatening to wipe out their small house.

Their mother died and father went missing a long time ago, but George keeps telling Beeper that he’ll be returning anytime soon. But when a girl (Sofia Nolan) breaks into George and Beeper’s house, they’re forced to find a new way forward.

Kilmurry’s adaptation is made up of a series of short scenes, dropping in on these characters at different points over the space of a few weeks. I’ve not read the novel, so I’m not sure what has been retained, cut or added, but Kilmurry has found a very neat theatrical form with lively dialogue for this story.

Fraser Corfield has directed a vivid and colourful production with some excellent technical elements, including Rita Carmody’s dust-encrusted design, Benjamin Brockman’s lighting design of reds and oranges and Daryl Wallis’s otherworldly, post-apocalyptic sound design.

Corfield has also drawn fine performances from the young actors who have to carry almost this entire production on their own shoulders.

Rory Potter is excellent as George, the young boy forced to grow up well before his time and become a surrogate parent to Beeper. Potter’s George is practical and stubborn, and his entire world revolves around protecting his younger brother. If you want to be picky about Potter’s performance — and he is Sydney’s best young actor, so it’s worth highlighting — he could do with a little more vocal texture.

The young Noah Sturzaker shares the role of Beeper with Jack Andrew, and delivers a confident and skilful performance, imbuing the character with a sense of integrity and playfulness, while Richard Sydenham seamlessly transforms into his various adult roles.

Sofia Nolan makes an impressive professional debut as Emily, the dangerous girl who wanders into the young boys’ midst. There’s a sense of sadness permeating through her whole performance as she captures her character’s loneliness and need for a connection.

At its core, The Big Dry is a moody and thrilling drama, focusing on how young people can draw together and support each other in times of crisis. It’s a common theme in YA fiction: in a dystopian future young people have to find a way to exist in a harsh world and determine their own futures without parental guidance.

But it also serves as a reminder that unless we take action now, we might be transforming this planet — or at least vast sections of it — into a completely uninhabitable place.

The Big Dry is at the Ensemble Theatre until July 2. Featured image by Clare Hawley

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