Drama Theatre, July 20
It takes 14 pages for her to appear, and another five before she has much to say, but JG Milford certainly shakes up the 1890s town of Koolgalla. Just her gender kicks off that process, because Rufus Torrent, editor of the Koolgalla Argus, assumed JG was a man when he hired her. A woman working on a newspaper in Koolgalla? Cue steam rising, rather than dust. Once ensconced Jenny Milford is the catalyst for changing hearts, perspectives and futures, yet she, herself, feels curiously underwritten, despite the best efforts of screen actor and comedian Celia Pacquola, who makes her mainstage debut in the role.
The obscure Australian playwright Oriel Gray knew something about women who are provocatively ahead of their time. She was triply atypical herself, being a writer, a participant in a de facto relationship and an ex-member of the Australian Communist Party at the time she penned The Torrents in 1954. It shared the nation’s main playwriting award in 1955 with Ray Lawlor’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, yet waited until 1996 for a professional premiere, before this second production, jointly presented by Sydney Theatre Company and Black Swan State Theatre Company, directed by Clare Watson.
So, an unrecognised masterpiece? No. The play’s twin themes of proto-feminism and sustainability are of infinitely more interest than its craft, which contains slabs of dialogue that ache to be rewritten, and too many caricatures in what was originally a cast of 13, here reduced to nine.
Were it not for Jenny Milford, Rufus Torrent (Tony Cogin) and his son Ben (Gareth Davies), no one on stage would hold much interest. Christy (Geoff Kelso) is a one-gag windbag who only clogs the play’s breathing apparatus. Jock (Sam Longley) is an off-the-shelf dour Scot, Mason (Steve Rodgers) is so cantankerous he would find a scapegoat if he won the lottery, and Gwynne (Emily Rose Brennan) is the chocolate-box ingenue who discovers her inner feminist thanks to the example of Jenny – with whom, in dramatic terms, she cries out to share a scene. Luke Carroll (the perspicacious idealist Kingsley) and Rob Johnson (the wet-behind-the-ears Bernie) complete the cast.
The best-written character also generates the finest performance. Gareth Davies’ Ben is genuinely multi-faceted: charming, drunk, arrogant, confused, loyal, intelligent, witty and capable of acknowledging his own shortcomings. Davies brings the play – which periodically feels as wooden as the desks and doors – to life with each appearance. Without his humour, without the wry charm that Gray and Pacquola both add to Jenny’s racing intelligence, and without Gogin’s convincingly pliable autocratic editor, the play would be heavy going, with its odd cocktail of naturalism and second-rate sit-com exaggeration.
Watson is sometimes complicit, although elsewhere her adroit choreography (on Renee Mulder’s realist set) papers over the cracks or lets in an extra laugh or two. She has quite reasonably cut the cast by eliminating characters who only appear at a shareholders’ meeting. The problem is that those lines have now been distributed among the newspaper’s staff, making the workplace seem overly democratic, and thereby denting the credibility of Rufus Torrent’s subsequent rage at having his authority undermined.
The Torrents is not some rudely ignored classic. A revival is justified because of its ability to confront us with the harsh fact that issues surrounding the treatment of women and the sustainable use of the land were relevant in the 1890s, in the 1950s and, sadly, remain so in 2019. Slow learners.
Until August 24.