An unforgettable tale for our times

20 June 2019

Review: Black Swan State Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company, The Torrents ·
State Theatre Centre of WA, June 19 ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

It’s like finding an old, forgotten watch buried under a pile of junk in an attic and discovering, against all odds, that it was keeping perfect time.

That’s The Torrents. A neglected play only performed once in the 64 years since it was written, gathering dust while decades of Australian drama and generations of Australian audiences rolled past it, heedless.

It’s a sad neglect. While Oriel Gray’s melodrama about a small town newspaper turned upside down by the arrival of a talented, forthright woman to join its unconsciously all-male staff (unconscious because it had never occurred to any of them that there might ever be a female in a newsroom) is not a great play, it is certainly a very good one, and getting better, and more pertinent, all the time.

The best news of all is that Black Swan and Sydney Theatre Company have done it justice, with clear, accurate direction by Clare Watson, a beautifully lived-in set by Renée Mulder, some tasty incidental music by Joe Paradise Lui and a seasoned and perfectly-chosen cast, highlighted by a splendid performance from Celia Pacquola as the disruptive J. G. (Jenny) Milford.

Celia Pacquola
Celia Pacquola gives a splendid performance as J.G. Milford in ‘The Torrents’. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

It’s the 1890s in a place called Koolgalla (that might be Kalgoorlie or one of the gold rush towns of Victoria and New South Wales). The town is prosperous, but the best days of gold are past and warning signs are beginning to appear.

A young engineer, Kingsley (Luke Carroll) – who might be C.Y. O’Connor – believes the district must irrigate to secure a farming future, even though the lure of gold still reigns in Koolgalla, and in its newspaper’s office.

The paper’s editor, Rufus Torrent (Tony Cogin), pays little attention to Kingsley’s plans, while its major investor, John Manson (Steve Rodgers) is violently opposed to them, and doesn’t mind insisting that his views are supported by the paper.

Meanwhile, Rufus’s son, Ben (Gareth Davies), is struggling with the long shadow of his kindly but overbearing father, his affectionate rather than passionate relationship with his fiancée Gwynne (Emily Rose Brennan), and the lure of Koolgalla’s pubs.

Rob Johnson, Geoff Kelso, Celia Pacquola and Tony Cogin.
It’s treacherous surf for a mere woman to wade into – but there’s nothing ‘mere’ about J.G. Milford. Pictured are Rob Johnson (Bernie), Geoff Kelso (Christy), Celia Pacquola (J.G. Milford) and Tony Cogin (Rufus Torrent) in ‘The Torrents’. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

It’s a treacherous surf for a mere woman to wade into – but there’s nothing “mere” about J.G. Milford.

It was prescience rather than serendipity that saw Gray bring the three themes of the control of the media, the place of women in the workforce, and sustainability rather than resource exploitation to The Torrents. She was an active participant in the left wing politics of pre-and-post-WWII Australia and clearly had strong views on these issues… but they have never been so prominent, or pressing, as they are today.

Gray carefully avoids the soapbox, and for the most part succeeds in the effort, and that gives The Torrents considerable heft without adding too much weight.

She’s not quite as successful in her treatment of the play’s comic characters, the foreman Jock McDonald (Sam Longley), the printer Christy (Geoff Kelso) and the office apprentice Bernie (Rob Johnson), but all three are terrific comic actors and make the very best of the fairly average hands they’ve been dealt.

Gareth Davis and Emily Rose Brennan
Things work out well at the end… but there’s no conventional happy ending. Pictured are Gareth Davies (Ben) and Emily Rose Brennan (Gwynne) in ‘The Torrents’. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

Things work out well in the end, but Pacquola’s J.G. Milford is too strong a woman to meekly surrender to the conventions of a happy ending.

That’s what makes her such a memorable character, and it’s what makes The Torrents, finally and deservedly, an unforgettable Australian play.

Postscript: After a short Perth season The Torrents transfers to the Sydney Opera House for a six-week engagement, and by all accounts it’s breaking records for advance sales. That’s a feather in the cap for Oriel Gray and her legacy, and also for Black Swan State Theatre Company, and its artistic director Clare Watson, at a time of considerable concern about its direction.

The Torrents plays until June 30.

Pictured top: Celia Pacquola, Sam Longley, Geoff Kelso and Rob Johnson in ‘The Torrents’. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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