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Launceston Players
Earl Arts Centre

April 19th, 2023

In the roughly thirty-five years since its debut, Michael Gow’s Away has become perhaps one of the most produced plays in the country. It is performed by theatre companies and schools the nation over, and it is somewhat astonishing that until now it has never been produced by the Launceston Players, but it has been brought to the Earl Arts Centre by director Megan Jolly as their first production for 2023.

Away centres around three families in the summer of 1967/68. Central to all are teenagers Meg and Tom (Angie Collins and Angus Purtell), who have met while performing together in a school play. The cast is filled out by their respective parents, and a third couple, the school headmaster and his wife. These families are loving but fractured, and they bear old wounds. When each plans a beach trip to get away for the holidays, their problems come with them.

Many cast members, Collins and Purtell in particular, also play supporting parts. Collins has little to do in her other roles, but shines as Meg, displaying both the mother’s determination, and the father’s quiet strength. Purtell on the other hand is perhaps stronger in his supporting role, his vocal rhythms suiting well the confused, overwhelmed newlywed Rick (a hotel guest some characters encounter) more so than the awkward teenage banter of Tom. Tom is a more complex character than he seems though, and both Purtell and Collins do their part to capture the range of emotions their later scenes demand.

Christopher Bryg and Kathryn Gray as Harry and Vic, the British migrant parents of Tom, provide a huge burst of energy from the moment they enter the action. They have perhaps the most immediately endearing characters, and Bryg and Gray run with that opportunity, earning audience confidence and shifting things immediately into a new gear. Bryg in particular is having tremendous fun, and when the script calls for something deeper, the contrast to their levity makes the impact of both their work that much greater.

There is also some welcome humour in the family of Meg, where parents Jim and Gwen (Travis Hennessy and Georgie Todman), with their brutally tense family dynamic, take part in an excruciatingly awkward Christmas. Gwen, who has fifteen kinds of tension, may secretly be the most physically demanding character, and Todman commits. You can practically hear her shoulders knot afresh with every piece of received bad news. Hennessy, as Gwen’s loyal and long-suffering husband, shines most in Gwen’s company, where his infinite patience and capacity to love provide a wonderful and necessary counterpoint. His scenes with Meg have good rhythm, but I wish I could have felt a greater sense of rapport between them.

Finally, there is headmaster Roy and his wife Coral (Jules Godman and Anne Riley). Godman could perhaps have been clearer vocally, some words did not reach the back row, but his conception of Roy is strong; he appears reserved but is capable of expressing a wider range of feelings than many of the other characters, showing tenderness but voicing frustrations. Godman also more than most of the cast, shows variance in how his character relates to different people. It’s intelligent work. Coral is a role that could easily be misplayed as overly aloof or dreamy, and Riley avoids this by exploring the part of Coral which truly desires to heal. You sense the pain which drives many of her impulses.

Set design by Darren Willmott is spare, with a large amount of open space. A large semi-circular area to the fore is often bare and is loosely separated into areas suggesting the homes of the principal families. Behind this, a section of beach, some decking, and a rustic shed façade serve as a variety of holiday destinations along the Queensland coast – the “away” to which our characters journey.

On both a set and a staging level there has been no attempt to reinvent this play. It’s all pretty conventional stuff, really. The mission statement here on the part of the creative team and in particular director Megan Jolly appears to have been a faithful and completely naturalistic retelling of an Australian classic. It’s a valid approach, and the focus is on the characters, where it should be.

And this is not to say that the show has ignored its tech. It frequently looks quite nice indeed, with wonderful costume work by Janice Molineux and Gina McKenzie. And within the set, Willmott has given himself tremendous options in his additional capacity as lighting designer, with white cloth banners which slide on a ceiling rail and effectively define the downstage area. These simple backdrops make a huge difference, they allow the scenes to soak in colour. The same effect has been recreated at the rear of the stage, with another white backdrop, this one static. It is likewise effective on a lighting front but draws attention to the emptiness of that side of the stage.

Given the stage’s division, much of the action regrettably takes place quite far from the audience. There are impactful moments throughout that occur in the downstage area, but some, including a key scene where several characters give a performance for others, are distanced. This is perhaps more congruent with the sense of place the play is working to achieve, but some of the impact is irretrievably lost.

I have been familiar with Away for many years, but only with this experience have I come to realise how deeply, how subtly it has been constructed. Its respect for its audience is immense. There is conflict, but it is not built from contrivance, it is imbedded in the situations as we first discover them. There is of course a narrative, but the most pivotal moments are not ones which drive the story forward, but instead expand our understanding of what brought the characters to these circumstances. In a sense we are witnessing the third acts of some, the first of others. There is catharsis too, but the play truly offers no easy answers to the problems the characters face.

At roughly 100 minutes, the play never feels overlong, and the cast and director have clearly worked to keep the pacing tight. There were moments which should perhaps have been allowed to breathe, notably a montage prior to the final sequence, which felt somewhat rushed, particularly for Jim and Gwen, but overall, it moves swiftly.

What’s great about Away has more to do with its honesty than its immediacy. There are cultural aspects whose relevance extends to the present, certainly, but it is not a play that regards with open eyes the way we live right now. Rather, it is an honest and deeply felt examination of the scars borne by a certain generation of Australians. And in that respect, a production of Away in 2023 is difficult to assess for other people, as your experience will differ to the extent you can personally connect with the period depicted. For older audience members, who may be of a generation with the younger characters in the play, the mannerisms and attitudes of the characters may resonate deeply. For those of the generations born to parents who have never known widespread economic or wartime devastation, it seems a fair question to ask what instruction Away still holds. Why this play? Why now?

I don’t know I have an answer for that, but what stands out, and what I connect with beyond its worth as cultural document, is the emotional power it generates, and its surprisingly uplifting message. Away is a sad play about loss and trauma and the persistence of memory, yes, but it is also a compassionate play, that celebrates the sacrifices we’re capable of making to better the lives of those we love, particularly those who need our support the most. It is a moving and essential piece of Australian theatre history, and I am glad it has finally come to the Launceston Players. Get a ticket before it closes on the 28th.

Review By Ryan Politis

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