There are many reasons to admire this new Australian play – and its production. Lachlan Philpott’s sensitive and engaging text and the bright performances of its cast being the first to come to mind. This is my first chance to come to Philpott’s writing ‘at strength’. I saw Bison at Belvoir Downstairs a couple of years back: it was okay but essentially a fairly early revived work. If the more recent Colder was anywhere near as good as Silent Disco is, I can understand why interest has been brewing.
There is a lot of new playwriting out there, but very little of it captures today’s world so vividly and with such compassion and humour. Not just any world in this case: but that of today’s teenagers. For all the right reasons, this experience in the theatre made me feel rather old. Okay, we all know what its like to be a kid. But in today’s world? I thought I might have had some idea, but no I did not. How times have changed. Growing up has never been easy, but with so many absent and/or damaged parents, no apparent ethical framework on which to hang decisions, lots of freedom but nothing much to do with it, teenage years today come across as unreasonably tough.
Silent Disco is on a face of it a version of Romeo and Juliet. The boy Jasyn Donovan (aka Squid), played by Meyne Wyatt, is a Koori kid who lives with his brooding auntie. His girlfriend – of several ‘weeks, days and hours’ – is Tamara Brewster, played by Sophie Hennser. Tamara lives with her uncaring dad (who in later years has come out gay), and she meets with her problematic mother on the odd occasion. The parents are mere shadows in this drama, and that’s the point. The only adults to make their presence felt are Jasyn’s older brother, Dane (Kirk Page), who partway through the play gets out of jail; and a uniquely seasoned and caring school teacher, Ms Petchell (Camilla Ah Kin).
What happens is the stuff of school-day life, the minutiae, the ups and downs in the classroom, the yard, and the stretching suburbia beyond. The plot is built on some classic devices: the brother’s return to the outside world turns it entirely upside down, and it’s all building to the school formal – but will we get there? Can first love ever get very far? And with so much going against it? What I really like about this script is how Philpott begins with a very standard storyline (so we are on a familiar track) but builds it into life – into three-dimensionality – with such attention to detail that we really are forced to look at the world afresh. I can’t say with any authority that this is how young people today (from this particular world) think and speak. But it rang true to me; and on the night I attended, the teenagers in the audience looks to be giving the show the thumbs up.
What’s really special is Philpott’s handling of language – not just the jargon and vocabulary, but the way thought itself is organised these days. Nothing linear left in today’s world – language is mashed. And regarding the play’s title: yes indeed: who really knows what’s going inside the heads of kids these days?
Philpott’s script has been embraced with commitment and verve from the cast. Mayne Wyatt brought himself to notice in The Brothers Size. Sophie Hennser as Tamara is particularly astonishing: the story is told mostly from her perspective, and the emotional and intellectual adventure this young actress embraces (with such confidence) is pretty massive. Kirk Page, as the brother is sexy and threatening. Camilla Ah Kin’s compassionate optimism as the school teacher is beautiful to watch. Plus she gets a chance to ‘play up’ in one adorable scene as a local check-out chick.
I’ve mentioned how Griffin is leading the way among the main companies in nurturing its relationship with audiences. So it’s no surprise to see artistic director Sam Strong himself posting comments on the website: “On Friday” Strong posted recently, “we had the company run of our next main season show, Silent Disco. Seeing the full work in front of its first official audience was a lovely reminder of the unique nature of new writing. In Silent Disco, Lachlan achieves three things that make new writing special. First, he reflects our contemporary world back at us. It’s refreshing to see a work so firmly located in the here and now of our very own Sydney. Secondly, Lachlan reflects that world in a way that makes us see it anew. Finally, Silent Disco transports us completely into someone else’s experience. It has been an unfortunately long time since I was a teenager but the beauty of the play (and what Associate Director Lee Lewis is doing with it) is that we all get swept up in the story of Tamara and Squid.” I totally agree.
I can only cite a couple of slight imperfections in the writing, and I hope Philpott takes it as a compliment that the best I can do is nitpick. One is that Ms Petchell herself does not go on quite enough of a journey in her own right. Ideally we should see her too end up in a different place. And the other is that the matter of Tamara’s dad having AIDs. It’s a bit blurry in the facts area – presumably he’s living with HIV illness (only now being diagnosed) which is not the same thing. On the matter of Ms Petchell, we hardly notice because as a character she is so beautifully drawn, and thoughtfully realised by Ah Kin. Regarding the AIDs stuff, yes I know that kids today are ill informed and confused – but how the subject is handled in this play (easily fixed – next draft – a few new lines) is not helpful.
Lee Lewis’s direction is confident and empathetic. Justin Nardella’s set is simple and groovy. Ross Graham’s imaginative lighting design a bargain for the price. Two quite new guys to the business and both definitely have what it takes. Sound design is by Stefan Gregory. Gregory has contributed to so many outstanding productions over the past few years, from The War of the Roses to The Wild Duck, it’s high time – in the very least – that I mentioned his name.
Try and catch this show if you can: it’s what good Australian theatre today is all about!