The arrival of something special?

13 May 2021

In the high-quality double bill The Children and I and You David Zampatti hopes we might be seeing the emergence of a worthy successor to a long-lost, legendary Perth theatre company.

The Children and I and You, THEATRE 180 ·
Burt Hall, 12 May 2021 ·

Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin

T.S. Eliot, Whispers of Immortality

At first glance the components of this double bill (though they can be seen separately) of The Children by the British playwright Lucy Kirkwood and I and You by the American Lauren Gunderson, don’t seem to fit neatly together, or into the mould of Theatre 180, the company that made an impression last year with that rare commodity, a genuine hit – their stage version of A.B. Facey’s A Fortunate Life.

It’s a mark of the quality of each piece, and some astute curating by 180’s artistic director Stuart Halusz and his colleagues, that they prove to be a most appropriate and satisfying pairing.

Both plays are dominated by the spectre of death, its power and its anticipation. And both come with an angel, one of death in life, one of life in death, to propel their stories to unexpected, theatrically audacious, resolutions.

Andrew Lewis as Robin sits at a kitchen table, looking at Vivienne Garrett, as Rose, who stands on the other side of the kitchen, holding a glass of wine and looking mutinous. Jenny Davis, as Hazel, stands close to Robin, looking down, possibly uncomfortable.
Andrew Lewis, as Robin, Jenny Davis, as Hazel and Vivienne Garrett, as Rose, in ‘The Children’. Photo: Stewart Thorpe

In The Children, a retired couple live a short, barely-safe, distance from the site of a catastrophe, the destruction and failure of a nuclear power plant in circumstances explicitly modelled on 2011’s Fukushima disaster.

Robin (Andrew Lewis) and Hazel (Jenny Davis) were both nuclear physicists working at the plant, and they suffer the consequences of the disaster, from rationed electricity, and dubious water and food, to guilt and the numbing reality of the deaths over the years of their colleagues from radiation sickness.

The sudden arrival of one of them, Rose (Vivienne Garrett), is surprising and not entirely welcome: “I thought you were dead”, says Hazel.

What follows appears to be a typical, icy, often neatly funny domestic merry-go-round full of half-truths and exposés, sitting in familiar territory somewhere between Alan Aykbourn and Edward Albee.

But this is no Bedroom Farce, and it’s not Virginia Woolf these people are afraid of. Rose has come to them with a proposal, and it’s one that kills the laughter stone dead.

A world and two generations away, American teen Caroline (Sophia Forrest) also has a visitor in I and You. He’s a high-school classmate, Anthony (Darius Williams), and he bursts into her bedroom bearing treats and an unfinished project on the American poet Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.

Caroline doesn’t attend school; she’s stuck in her room, hostage to a life-threatening disease only a liver transplant can save her from.

Anthony, it seems, is her work buddy on the project, but Caroline has no enthusiasm for it, or his presence. He’s persistent, though, and charming, and slowly opens her up to Whitman, his poem’s arcane meanings and, in a sense, life itself.

But Anthony is not who he seems, and neither is what we are watching. The reveal, when it comes, is immensely clever, works back through the play perfectly – and, of course, is not for me to say anything more about.

Darius Williams as Anthony sits on a desk in a bedroom, chin on hand, looking dreamily into the distance. Sophia Forrest sits on a chest at the end of the bed, reading a book.
Darius Williams, as Anthony, and Sophia Forrest, as Caroline in ‘I and You’. Photo: Stewart Thorpe

I and You has some hurdles to overcome in cultural translation, one being that Whitman has never travelled particularly well from America to the rest of the Anglosphere. There’s something about what resonates for Americans in him that either escapes us or leaves us, if not cold, at least cool.

The same could be said for bebop, free jazz and John Coltrane, whose album A Love Supreme features prominently in the story.

Perhaps giving more snippets of their work throughout the show would help break down those barriers, but these are mere quibbles in the face of the quality and impact of this finely crafted and daring piece.

Taken together, The Children and I and You are a godsend for five actors at different points in their careers. There are no supernumerary parts here – each is a starring role, and all five take to the rare opportunity with fabulous energy and skill.

Both plays gain much from their direction; it’s no surprise, given her great interest in contemporary American theatre, that the former artistic director of Black Swan State Theatre Company, Kate Cherry, delivers touch and energy to I and You in her welcome return to the Perth stage. Halusz also marshals The Children with impressive poise for a director recently come to the craft.

Theatre 180 is a natural extension of founder Jenny Davis’s decades-long work with Agelink Theatre, bringing the stories of West Australian seniors to the stage. It’s clear, though, from these new productions that Theatre 180 has broader ambitions than that.

In its commitment to the increasingly elusive “well-made play”, and especially to veteran actors like Garrett (who is absolutely superb in The Children) as well as younger ones like Forrest (ditto in I and You), it is performing a great service to our theatre.

And it occurred to me as I left Burt Hall that perhaps, at long last, we might be seeing the arrival of a worthy successor to Perth’s legendary Hole in the Wall Theatre, whose absence for the best part of three decades has been a void that nothing else has really filled.

The Children and I and You run at Burt Hall until 29 May 2021.

Pictured top are Sophia Forrest and Darius Williams in ‘I and You’. Photo: Stewart Thorpe

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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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