Hell’s Canyon theatre review (Trades Hall, Melbourne)

Emily Sheehan is a young Australian writer (and graduate of the VCA) who has written a sweet, smart gem of a play currently running at La Mama’s temporary home in Trades Hall. It’s rare to see a first play written by a young writer that is so economically astute, so lyrical, so authentic and so magical as Hell’s Canyon, which won the Rodney Seaborn Playwrights’ Award and was shortlisted for the Patrick White Playwrights’ Award.

Two high school students meet out of school: Oscar (Conor Leach), an awkward, blushing, outsider and Caitlyn (Isabelle Ford), the belligerent, bright principal’s daughter. Immediately, we have questions. Why have they fallen out? What has precipitated their rapprochement? Are they friends, lovers, frenemies? Why does Caitlyn have a new tattoo of a poisonous plant and a wide deep wound on her knee. When Caitlyn suggests they make a blood pact to be friends forever and run away, and Oscar – hesitant and nervous in the face of her challenging bravado – finally agrees, what exactly are they running from?

In a cheap motel, they summon and dissect their shared history and the third character who links them. It’s a story of grief, love, connection and growing up hard and fast. But despite the dark sorrow that underpins both their empathy for and resentment towards each other, there is a lightness and neediness that amounts to some version of love that is enigmatic and beautifully subtle, and ultimately optimistic. 

This is a play “for young people” – presumably because they are the two protagonists and my 14 year old daughter was hooked from the first words and experienced the play with visceral pleasure and pain. As an adult audience member, I was similarly captivated due to the writer’s ability to effortlessly capture complicated multi-faceted segues: the pain and dislocation of transition from childhood to adulthood, the language of naturalism and the language of magic realism, the world of the teenager which is her content, and the craft of making a play in the edited, intricately constructed world of performance. 

Emily Sheehan is so adept as a writer that she has mastered the truth of the characters but also evocatively creates their shared fantasy world which is prompted by an adult graphic magazine called Hell’s Canyon which Oscar carries in his backpack. When Caitlyn summons this fantastic canyon with a poetic voice at odds with her naturalistic plain-speaking, she evokes a refuge from the real world. As she encourages Oscar to join her there, in this imagined landscape, we feel the depth of their shared pain and need to escape, the confusion of encountering the darkness of adult problems at the same time as retaining a child’s easy access to fantasy. 

Both actors deliver touching, emotionally detailed performances and are well directed by Katie Cawthorne, on a simple but inventively surprising set by Tyler Ray Hawkins. But Isabelle Ford is a stand out – her pugnacious, charismatic intelligence radiates across the wit and pathos of Emily Sheehan’s wonderful script. 

Wednesday to Sundays, Trades Hall Carlton until September 23. Production photo by James John

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