The Fringe Hub has a new, informative feature this year: laminated signs marked to indicate that a performance contains certain types of scenes, such as those showing drug use, or strobe effects, or representations of death. Having seen Attic Erratic’s Tripped, an important advisory is missing: “Viewing this show may totally mess you up for your next one”.
Tripped, written by Nick Musgrove, is a dark comedy that draws inspiration from the Alex Buzo play of 1968 Norm and Ahmed. The action begins with Australian soldier Norm (Angus Brown) and American chaplain Mike (Liam O’Kane) trudging through a desert following a helicopter crash. Mike’s inexperience and bumbling is an annoying distraction as short-fused Norm tries to keep vigilant and get them to safety, and provides opportunity for physical comedy.
Before we start to take proceedings too flippantly, characters and audience alike are abruptly reminded that this is a conflict zone. Norm places his weight on a mine as a hostile gunman Ahmed (Ezel Doruk) appears, only to misstep himself. As Ahmed is armed while Norm has discarded his weapon, he takes the opportunity to ask questions of this invader of his homeland.
From two men anchored to the sand and facing likely destruction, Celeste Cody’s direction manages to sift events both comedic and dramatic. This is a result of the great contrast between the manner of the men. Ahmed is an honour student, sent to Australia to study before returning to join the family business. Professional soldier Norm spitefully uses terms like “raghead” for Muslims. The character of Ahmed is much more worldly than Norm and he has far greater depth. Doruk animates his character with pride, resentment and wry delivery in an impressive performance. When Norm realises there’s no harm in talking to his equally trapped adversary, we come to appreciate the source of his bubbling anger, whilst also being able to laugh at bogan tendencies.
One can’t stand on a landmine forever, and deserts can be strange places at night. An appearance by Jacques (O’Kane again) garnered laughs as he booty shook his way through a tutorial for the prisoners on how to get into their mine’s good books. This interlude of magical realism meets Kenny Everett is something of a stylistic hand grenade. It is in stark contrast to the restraint applied elsewhere by director Cody, which, coupled with the plain fabric lengths representing the desert dunes of Nick Wollan’s design, focuses our attention on the nuances of the conversation. I’m not convinced this comic relief was necessary, and it results in Norm looking even more unsophisticated.
This gets to my main reservation about the play. Norm vehemently rejects Ahmed’s accusation that he’s from Cronulla, when he’s actually from Woolooware, an adjoining suburb. Yet, he says nothing to convince us that he actually wants to distance himself from that area’s famous modern connotations. A casual TV news viewer would have seen Australian soldiers stationed with Afghan fighters, and know the difference between “Islamic” and “Islamist”. I find it difficult to accept that battle-hardened Norm is oblivious to such cooperations, and that he would apply the same indiscriminate loathing of all Muslims as the most rednecked and insular ocker.
So maybe Norm’s character is a chink in the play’s armour. This matter pales against a conclusion that hits like a percussion wave, propelling us in an instant backward through the story, now able to see certain developments for what they are. This ambush was the most disturbing thing I’ve seen on stage for some time, and shows that Attic Erratic know how to give bang for your buck.