Saturday, August 3, 2019

The Torrents

Sydney Theatre Company and Black Swan State Theatre Company present, THE TORRENTS, by Oriel Gray, in The Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. 18th July - 24th August.

THE TORRENTS, is an Australian play written by Oriel Gray. It was the joint winner of a prestigious playwriting award from the Playwright Advisory Board (PAB) in 1955, sharing with SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL, by Ray Lawler. The Lawler play began a rich Australian production history in 1955 that took it onto the National and International stages: London, New York, and, still appears regularly today as part of the Australian Theatre Companies repertoire.

On the other hand, Ms Gray's play was almost entirely neglected, forgotten, and did not receive a professional stage production until 1996 in Adelaide. Although, there was a television broadcast in 1969 of the play by the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) in a six play anthology, called AUSTRALIAN PLAYS, Directed by Oscar Whitbread, starring Barbara Stephens, Ken Shorter and Alan Hopgood. (Those were the days, eh?, when the ABC was indeed loyal and adventurous about their responsibilities to the Australian writer). This co-production in the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, by Black Swan Theatre Company and the Sydney Theatre Company is its second professional staging. Sixty four years after its prize winning bow. How that has happened will be the centre of many thesis dissertations to come, I am sure.

I had read the play and always had an affection for it, particularly, as I have been a regular contributor to the New Theatre as an actor and Director, the theatre that Oriel Gray had been firmly attached to in 1947 when she was a gauche 17 year old. Then, the New Theatre was affiliated with the Communist Party and the repertoire was focused on political agitation and propaganda serving the working classes of Australia - a definite belief in Socialism as an alternate doctrine for successful government. The theatre and all involved were, of course, suspect and were kept under surveillance by the Federal and State Governments. (The New Theatre was founded in 1932 and is the oldest theatre in continuous production in New South Wales). Ms Gray, later did grapple with the Communist Party philosophies and eventually quit the Party in 1949, though her social justice preoccupations never disappeared from her writing.

It was an anticipatory excitement I carried into the auditorium to see THE TORRENTS, at last.

It is a production by Clare Watson, the Artistic Director of the Black Swan Theatre Company (Perth), the co-producer of the project. The play is an example of the solid 4-square dramaturgical structure of the 1950's, peopled by familiar character types suitable to the environment of the play, and Ms Watson with her Set and Costume Designer (Renee Mulder) have striven to re-create, visually, a 'museum' accuracy for a newspaper office set in a Western Australia country town of the 1890's - a fictional town called Koolgalla, that is on the wane after the glories of a Gold Rush have diminished.

The play is a period melodrama that conjures the comic socialist work of G.B. Shaw with hints of the influence of the agenda theatre of Henrik Ibsen. So, THE TORRENTS, has an uncanny reference to contemporary issues such as 'gender politics, mining versus sustainable environmental practices and the power of money to corrupt truth in our media'. The capture of water the central concern of the characters in the play - water is more valuable than gold. Ask the denizens of the Murray/Murrumbidgee Rivers. More valuable than gold.

It is a story of the New Woman confronting the muddling patriarchy with zeal and values. It requires a galvanising, radiating energy at the play's production centre. It needs a performance that lights up the stage and manages the 'leading lady' responsibility with zest, confidence, grace, charm and wit. Cast in the central role of J (for Jenny).G . Milford is stand-up and television comedy star, Celia Pacquola (UTOPIA, ROSEHAVEN).

This production begins with Ms Pacquola, in contemporary clothes in front of the red curtain, beneath a pink neon lighting feature (illustrating the signature of the author of the play, Oriel Gray), with a microphone in hand, in a bright spotlight, introducing the history of the play, author and production, interacting, improvising, with the audience with charming, comfortable comic ease. She left the stage, the curtain rose and in the fashion of the1950's period dramaturgy we are introduced into the necessary given circumstances of the play's world and its dramatic concerns, through the interactions of quickly identified character types - familiars - building inevitably to the (late) entry of the star (catalyst) onto the stage for the comic/drama to be ignited.

Ms Pacquloa, now appears period-dressed in dowdy browns and cream, with brunette wig, and reveals a dimmed stage wattage/presence (so unlike her confident swaggering pre-curtain standup persona, when she had no script, only her ready wit, with microphone and spotlight). Her vocal equipment, that despite artificial electronic boosting (all the company are adorned with facial microphones), is underwhelming in its ability to capture an audience to a state of breathless 'star' awe. The skill technique for the theatre is so different for the standup or television performer. Ms Pacquola  has little technique for her efforts of inhabiting an exhilarating persona for J.G. Milford.

That the two Production companies have cast a commercial television star, much appreciated by her fans (I, being one) to 'sell' their show, (to put bums-on-seats?) seems to be a cynical strategy so as to explain what we experience in the Sydney Opera House. Ms Pacquola does not have the experience of a skilled actor held within the demands of a writer's script, to reveal the joys of Ms Gray's heroine in this neglected play. What we really need in J.G. Milford is the energy of say, a Rosalind Russell comic skill, exampled in her female journalist role in the Harold Hawks, screwball comedy, HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940). Ms Pacquola's performance is charming but merely capable. Not uninteresting just lacking in the techniques to create and sustain a tantalising presence to reveal the dramaturgy of the play over an interval free, one hour and forty minutes marathon.

There is otherwise some good old fashioned acting going on from most of the rest of the company, serving the play as it requires in its period truth and stylistics, to convince in its entertainment and social ambitions/agenda. Tony Cogin, as the confronted newspaper editor, Rufus Torrent, who has the malleability to grow beyond his prejudices, spurred because of the oppositional blustering, bullying energies of the 'moneyman' (villain) of the town, John Mason, created with similarly unerring accuracy, by Steve Rodgers.

They are surrounded by a supportive trio of comforting character familiars played with witty confidence by Sam Longely (Jock McDonald), veteran, Geoff Kelso (Christy) and ingenue, Rob Johnson (Bernie).

The gradual blossoming of the town beauty into a spirited feminine independence, Gwynne, under the tutelage of Jenny, is nicely handled with a knife edge wit and set of intelligent choices by Emily Rose Brennan, that, resolvedly gives us a convincing 'period' gentlewoman, yet with an added subtle, sly contemporary comment. Unfortunately, she is not well served, dramatically, with the offers of Gwynne's two romantic suitors, Kingsley, uncertainly embraced by Luke Carroll, who is not totally comfortable with the imaginative adaptations required to capture this 'stock' character, that definitely belongs to a by-gone era. While the comic schtick of Gareth Davies, that he predictably chooses to use, is technically clever, and is rewarded with audience laughter (and admiration), the cleverness, the 'mannered' stylistics, draw more attention to the skill of the actor than as a true contribution to the realisation of the potentially complex burdened son and heir of fortune and advantage in the town of Koolgalla, Ben Torrents. Ms Brennan has to do much to create Gwynne's journey, successfully.

This production of THE TORRENTS is a disappointment but not a complete failure to invite us to an appreciation of the skill and intentions of Oriel Gray. The play and the playwright still intrigues and perhaps, in the sometime future we will see a more rigorous, enlightened production that could lift the play into something more than a curiosity, wronged by history. This evening in the theatre is a safe entertainment.

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