Perhaps the most striking thing about Away by Michael Gow is how fundamentally unchanged our condition is today. Set in the 1960s, first performed in the 1980s, and currently in production at the Trinity Hall with Heartbeast Boutique Theatre Company, Away highlights the fragility of human life and the brutal loneliness of grief.
After a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, three families turn their attention to the Christmas vacation, unaware that an unseen force of Shakespearean proportions will conspire to bring all their crises to a head. Headmaster Roy (Warwick Comber) and wife Coral (Adrienne Costello) struggle over the loss of their son in the Vietnam War. British immigrants Harry (Brian Bolton) and Vic’s (Sherri Smith) son Tom (Patrick Bell) is dying of leukaemia. Tom, who wants to experience life (read sex) before his time is up, takes a shine to co-scholar Meg (Johancee Theron), much to the chagrin of her xenophobic mother (Jacqueline Kerr) and brow-beaten father (David Paterson). Away is such a simple human story it could be lifted out of the sixties and transplanted into any other era and the experience would remain intact.
A simplistic stage greets us giving the sense of sitting in the school hall which works beautifully for the awkward student rendition of Shakespeare’s Dream and a closing-the-year speech by the fabulously ocker Roy. Comber’s voice booms into the dead space of the theatre but was one of the few that consistently cleared the echo in the hall. Sadly some of the dialogue was consumed by that echo and poignant moments were impacted.
Jacqueline Kerr makes fun with Gwen as a caricature of Meg’s driven and highly strung mother making it hard to sympathise with her. Gwen’s journey is a powerful one, not just in the space of the play itself but in her life before it and like so many mother/daughter relationships, she is dismissed as valueless from the new generation of women. Although it is fun to laugh at old stereotypes it didn’t seem to serve the play on this occasion.
Newcomer, Patrick Bell excelled in a naturalistic delivery of the brave and flirty Tom – as an emerging artist he has impressed and Heartbeast doyenne Adrienne inspires (as always), giving us Coral – a vision of a tortured and aloof old Aunt. Powerful moments are created between Coral and Tom as the young boy provides her a chance to say goodbye to her own son and she helps him discover what it really means to connect with another human being. Sherri Smith is also a delight to watch, both in her quiet approach to a mother waiting for her time to grieve and as the crazy camper in a moment of comic relief.
Away seems an unusual choice for Heartbeast whose recent works could be described as flamboyant and experimental but it was a joy to see Gow’s classic tale on a small stage and great to see the trailblazing Heartbeast team break from expectation to keep the indie spirit alive. Away is playing now until March 7 at Trinity Hall with an Ipswich season to follow. Keep an eye on the Heartbeast website for more details.