‘Fourteen’ was forthcoming.
Presented by shake & stir theatre co and QPAC as part of Brisbane Festival, ‘Fourteen’ is a humorous and sometimes dark comedy adapted from the memoir of the same name by Shannon Molloy. The narrative follows young Molloy through a traumatic year in his life, with coming-of-age themes and self-discovery trickled throughout.
Published in 2020 and Longlisted for the 2021 ABIA Biography Book of the Year, the novel ‘Fourteen’ by Shannon Molloy is an autobiographical piece that explores a year of Molloy’s life growing up in regional Queensland and attending a conservative all-boys Catholic school. Adapted by Nelle Lee and Nick Skubij of Shake & Stir, in partnership with Shannon Molloy, the play rendition attempts to capture the essence of the original text which critics have suggested may be “this generations ‘Holding the Man’”.
At the centre of the plot is Shannon, on the edge of turning fifteen and uncertain of who he is. He has two best (female) friends, a long line of bullies, and a fairly average home life – with a wonderfully supportive mother and sister, a mostly non-existent father, and a brother who toes the line. A fleeting romance, momentary self doubt, and some exciting milestones fill the plot and make for an unnervingly familiar story for youth and adults alike.
As an adaptation of a book, the notion of chapters remained. The story arc seemed to lack a true climax, with significant moments placed throughout the piece and subplots holding their own as fleshed out stories. As a stage play, it was more of a montage from one year of life, rather than a crafted plot, which in some ways added to the realism and autobiographical aspect.
Set design, by Josh McIntosh, included a double-story backdrop that dominated the performance space. An assortment of windows and walls, reminiscent of Queensland school buildings, was stagnant throughout and remained in the peripherals as a constant reminder of place, and possibly symbolic of institutions. Some clever designs included half-walls that folded down to reveal a bedroom and urinal, at different points in the play. Most striking was the incorporation of three simple ceiling fans, which both gave a nod to the pre-airconditioned world of 90s Queensland, and played with the lighting to create atmosphere.
‘Fourteen’ could have, should have, and perhaps one day will be adapted into a musical or cabaret. The perfectly curated playlist lent itself to a jukebox musical, and at so many points throughout the play audience members leaned in waiting for an entire dance number to break out. Repeated moments of anticipation were evidence that the musical elements could have been explored a little further.
Costume direction by Fabian Holford incorporated mostly private school uniforms. There were moments of iconic throwbacks with baseball half-sleeve tees, low hanging shorts exposing boxer shorts, excessive hair clips and stringy tops, as well as baggy cargos and cheerleader-esque skirts. Thoughtful costume changes were a highlight, with seamless transitions for lead performers who switched between characters without blackouts.
Direction by Nick Skubij used levels in a meaningful way, paying homage to the era of roof top scenes on teenage sitcoms like ‘3rd Rock from the Sun’ and ‘Dawson’s Creek’. The use of flipped blocking, in which the characters faced the stage rear and lights gave the illusion of an audience beyond them, was effective early on in the family introductions and during the fashion show conclusion. Similar blocking choices were used in professional productions of ‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’ and this may have also been a nod to the shows’ shared themes of acceptance and pride.
Choreography by Dan Venz had the audience clapping, stomping and raring to join the characters; and again, highlighted the “almost there” musical direction of the production.
Conor Leach was engaging in the lead role of Shannon. While autobiographical pieces run the risk of steering into the narcissistic, Leach was able to balance his performance in such a way as to become a vehicle for the audience to view Molloy’s experiences. His disposition was poised and humble throughout, which developed a likability for his character.
Karen Crone, Amy Ingram, Helen Cassidy, Leon Cain, Mitchell Bourke, Johnny Balbuziente each played a plethora of characters. Equally skilled and agile, this production was in many ways shaped and successful as a result of the company.
Bourke was strikingly accurate as the 90s heartthrob, albeit a jerk; Ingram was able to craft a fair balance between comic relief and sincerity; Cain nailed the widest juxtaposition with his flamboyant portrayal of Jonathon and the more rough and tumble presentation as Shannon’s father; and Crone gave a tear-jerking performance in scenes as Shannon’s mother.
Unfortunately, by trying to include so many of the novel’s characters, there were some that slipped into the superficial. In particular, the bullies were not as fleshed out as they could have been, mostly opting for stereotypical insults and physical violence.
Similarly, only a brief shimmer of stage time was granted to the courageous gay, the effeminate Jonathon. While realistic in its portrayal of the spitefulness and self hate that sometimes plagues the gay community, it was hard to watch as the “only out kid in school” was pushed to the shadows, degraded by his own brethren, and painted as simplistic and unworthy of story.
While a solid piece of theatre in its own right, some furthering workshopping of ‘Fourteen’ could take the script to the next level; culling some unnecessary characters and plot points, elevating others with more dimension, and further leaning into the musical components.
With an epic soundtrack that perfectly captures the essence of queer Queensland in decades past, ‘Fourteen’ presented some raw and truthful elements of the gay experience in the 90s and 00s, particularly for suburban and regional youth.
‘Fourteen’ performs until 17 September 2022 at Cremorne Theatre, QPAC. For more information visit QPAC’s website.