Diving for Pearls review (Griffin Theatre, Sydney)

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As the gap between the haves and the have-nots in Australia continues to widen — or at the very least shows little sign of closing — Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company has chosen to revisit Katherine Thomson’s 1991 play about working class people struggling with the human costs of economic rationalism.

Diving for Pearls is set in Wollongong in the late 1980s, and follows Barbara (Ursula Yovich), a woman approaching 40, who has worked in a factory most of her life. But the NSW coastal city — in its straight-off-a-postcard location — is starting to transform from a manufacturing town into what could be a thriving tourism town. She wants in on the action and refuses to be left behind, so she enrols herself in a course, hoping to “improve” herself and land a job at one of the big hotels that’s popping up in town.

At the same time, her burgeoning relationship with middle-aged factory worker Den (Steve Rodgers) is starting to take off and proves to be a source of happiness and motivation for the unhappy pair. But will they be able to transform their lives with nothing to their names but ambition?

While the economic and social situation Thomson was writing about has changed in certain respects, the basic tenets of this story remain applicable to today’s audiences: economic and social mobility is near-impossible for those who’ve found themselves at the bottom of the heap.

But the play is frequently funny and full of lively characters who stop things from ever feeling too grim or maudlin. Director Darren Yap has found plenty of life in the dark corners of these character’s lives, and created a production that focuses on delivering the text with maximum integrity and impact.

Designer James Browne’s costumes give tasteful hints of the 1980s, while his detailed set straddles these characters’ home, work and social worlds, and features one particularly impressive moving feature for the intimate Griffin space. Composers and sound designers Max Lambert and Roger Lock provide a soundtrack that’s frequently transportive and conjures up images of that coastal city just 90 minutes down the road.

But this is a play that has people — and a deep human compassion — at its heart, and it lives and breathes thanks to the people populating Thomson’s world.

Ursula Yovich and Steve Rodgers are perfectly matched as Barbara and Den: both completely fearless actors unafraid to show us their characters’ vulnerabilities and ugliness. Yovich transforms entirely into this character, who is driven to near madness by her inability to move forward, while Rodgers draws out plenty of sympathy as a man awakening to the injustices around him.

Michelle Doake finds all of the hypocrisies of her uptight character Marj, Barbara’s sister, in a very funny performance that will hopefully relax a little over the course of the run. Newcomer Ebony Vagulans makes a big impact in the rather difficult role of Verge, while Jack Finsterer delivers a satisfyingly sympathetic performance as Ron, which muddies the moral waters of the play just a little.

There was a sense on opening night that the cast wasn’t entirely settled, with a few moments where the pace dropped or lines weren’t delivered with quite the confidence you might hope. But it’s well on its way to greatness, and I’m sure in a week from now the production will be hugely moving and zing with a strong life-force.

Diving for Pearls is at the SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney until October 28.

Featured image by Brett Boardman

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