Pilot partnership packs a punch

5 May 2021

A trial collaboration between Black Swan and the Blue Room yields punchy, emotionally driven theatre, reports Claire Trolio.

Playthings, Black Swan State Theatre Company in collaboration with The Blue Room Theatre ·
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA, 4 May 2021 ·

It was with relief that I took my seat for the opening night of Black Swan State Theatre Company’s production of Playthings. After being rescheduled twice due to the ongoing COVID uncertainty, I was happy just to be there, but even happier when what unfolded was a thoroughly good piece of theatre.

Written and directed by local playwright Scott McArdle, Playthings was a standout hit from The Blue Room Theatre’s 2019 season. As part of a pilot initiative between the two organisations, it’s been given new life under Black Swan’s wing, but with the original team remaining. Though Playthings stays true to McArdle’s vision, he has updated much of the dialogue. The result is a punchy script with not one of its 88 minutes wasted.

At its core, Playthings is about mental illness in children and the crippling effects of trauma. It’s heavy material that’s packaged alongside all the good and bad things that high school offers: new friendships, discovering great music, homework, hierarchies, first kisses and fistfights. Lucy (Courtney Henri) is the grungy girl who befriends the dorky, bespectacled Arnold (Daniel Buckle) and the two 13 year olds negotiate school and family against a backdrop of absent parents and emotional damage.

Courney Henri and Daniel Buckle dancing in the living room. She sings into a box of crackers, his hands are raised. They both look ecstatic.
Levity balances the heavy subject matter in ‘Playthings. Pictured are Courtney Henri, as Lucy, and Daniel Buckle, as Arnold. Photo: Daniel J Grant

On opening night Henri fizzed and popped her way around the stage, like a firecracker with a lit fuse. On the surface Lucy’s doing great – confident, top of her classes, with a packed schedule of extra-curricular activities – but Henri hints at the angst that’s bubbling beneath the surface long before it erupts. Buckle is magnificent as Arnold and his two dance numbers (choreographed by Shannon Rogers) show his comedic range alongside his evocative, dramatic one.

Supporting them are Siobhan Dow-Hall as English teacher Miss Richards, who is earnest and committed to her students but carries her own baggage, and St John Cowcher as Lucy’s step-dad Rhys trying desperately hard to fill this role with tenderness and vulnerability. You guessed it, Rhys is dealing with his own past, as well. Cowcher is tender and vulnerable, but also had the audience laughing out loud. Dow-Hall shines bright too, whilst promoting the two leads to do the same.

Coutney Henri, as Lucy, and St John Cowcher, as Rhys, sit at a kitchen table. He looks at her with concern and some anger. She looks away from him, in a classic expression of teen sulkiness.
Rhys (St John Cowcher) tries desperately hard as a step-dad to Lucy (Courtney Henri). Photo: Daniel J Grant

Sara Chirichilli’s set is perfection, completely nailing suburban, Western Australian architecture.  The set dissects one house and peeks into another, and both are eerily familiar. Meanwhile, Rebecca Riggs-Bennett’s original compositions flow through the space, complementing the use of teenage anthems that get you right in the guts.

Playthings is the complete package: it’s emotionally driven theatre delivered by an outstanding team. McArdle has opened up an important conversation about mental health, reminding us that as independent and capable as they may seem, children are shaped by the adults who surround them.

While the subject matter is heavy, the work isn’t burdened by it. There’s a levity and hopefulness that’s finely balanced, ultimately making Playthings a pleasure to witness.

Playthings runs at the State Theatre Centre of WA until 8 May 2021.

Pictured top: Packing a punch are Courtney Henri and Daniel Buckle. Photo: Daniel J Grant

Read Seesaw’s Q&A with St John Cowcher.

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Author —
Claire Trolio

Claire Trolio completed a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) and a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) at UWA. She writes about Western Australia for various digital and print media and owns a shop with her sister. For her, the spider swing is the ultimate in playground fun.

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