‘Away’ was histrionic.
Playwright Michael Gow is both the angel and the devil on the shoulders of Australian theatre, responsible for some of the best ideas within our theatrical canon as well as some of the worst. The best ideas involve the tragically underrated ‘Live Acts on Stage’ and the more contemporary ‘Toy Symphony’. ‘Away’ of course, belongs at the top of Gow’s list of achievements. A backbone of Australian Theatre, it has been widely performed since its debut in 1986 and has remained a popular stalwart of high school Drama and English classrooms since.
‘Away’ is the story of Tom, a teenage English immigrant living in Australia in the 1960s. Tom’s parents, Harry and Vic, intend to spend the Christmas holidays camping up the coast despite a tragedy that underpins their happy existence. Also holidaying are Meg, a girl from school for whom Tom has obvious feelings, and her parents, Gwen and Jim, as well as Tom’s school Principal, Roy, and his wife, Coral.
This premise sets the scene for Gow’s powerful script, an undeniable masterpiece that lifts the mask of Australia’s famously lackadaisical attitude and exposes how unprepared we are to cope with loss and grief when they invariably enter our lives. Woven into this construct is a pointed social commentary that has remained relevant since the play’s inception. It is at once comic and tragic, poignant and reflective, magical and sincere.
This particular production staged at the Gold Coast Little Theatre, takes a markedly different approach to the text. This version is primarily played for laughs, with scenes and characters played to the absolute extreme. The removal of the subtlety of Gow’s original text is a little disconcerting at first but most of the actors handle the interpretation effectively. Although the roles are caricaturised, they are still played three-dimensionally to an extent, and the actors are entirely committed to these portrayals.
The strongest performance comes from Rob Horton as Tom’s father, Harry, a man who has had to rapidly adopt new moral philosophies to cope with a family tragedy. It is Horton’s fearlessness as an actor, and his willingness to be raw and exposed, that sees him soar in this role.
As Meg, Olivia Kodette gives a wonderfully considered performance, providing balance to the zaniness. ‘Away’ is Kodette’s theatrical debut, but she handles the stage like an actor of experience.
Also worth mentioning is Kate McNair as Meg’s mother, Gwen. McNair plays the role with freneticism and wonderful comic timing, eliciting laughter from the audience with just a tilt of the head or the folding of a towel. She throws herself into this performance and satirises the figure of working-class Australia with which we are all so familiar.
But, whilst all interpretations of existing scripts are valid, it is in such interpretations that unfortunately some of Gow’s social commentary is sacrificed. By portraying Gwen in this way, rather than as the upper-class manipulator of the original text, there can be no exploration of Australia’s class system or the emerging role of women in Australia in the mid-20th century, themes so prevalent in Gow’s words.
This version also dispenses with most of the magical elements written into the text, though not necessarily to its detriment. Where the script calls for the fairies of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dreams’ to connect the worlds of the play (one of several Shakespearean motifs that underpin the drama), Director Stuart Lumsden has instead opted for a film projection of pre-recorded scenes and title cards. Theoretically these work, but they need more polish – grammatical errors, including the misspelling of the playwright’s name on the projections intercutting the dramatic action, make it a little difficult to engage.
If you have never seen or read ‘Away’, you will likely find a lot to enjoy in the heightened comedy of this production; the opening night audience certainly did. But die-hard fans of Michael Gow’s light and shade might struggle to see the text realised in this way.
‘Away’ performs until Saturday,29 June 2019 at the Gold Coast Little Theatre. Tickets are available at https://www.gclt.com.au.