‘Death in a Statesman’ was beguiling.
Small town characters meet big time business, cover-ups, and murder. ‘Death in a Statesman’ is a fascinating world of intrigue with Bundaberg as the backdrop. This neo-noir murder mystery is full of delightfully comical nods to every type of bogan typical of regional Australia. Beyond the comical murder investigation, the play incorporates far more serious themes of PTSD, broken families, and mortality. The play also dabbles with the subject of grassroots activism against multinational companies like Uber and Airbnb destroying local economies, as well as the dying news industry and failing police systems.
‘Death in a Statesman’ was written by Robert Kronk, an award-winning playwright and theatre practitioner, CEO of Flipside Circus, and co-founder and director of debase. Kronk was born and raised in Bundaberg, and each quirky character comes with an air of authenticity that only a true local would be able to depict. Balancing out the comedy of bogan Australians are the hard-hitting monologues about the aftermath of traumas that lead to broken families and broken minds. This piece is set to be another stunning work by the powerful creative team at debase.
The show begins with a gang of investigators stunting around the stage, each one wearing a fedora and a beige trench coat. Then, CRASH! A young boy, Cliff (Allen Laverty), witnesses a car crash victim draw their last shakey breaths claiming he had been run off the road. Fast forward, that boy is now a man, and he’s getting off the train from Melbourne. Cliff has finally made it back to his hometown in Bundaberg, ready(-ish) to reconnect with his family and start work as an investigative journalist at the dying local newspaper. His first day on the job, the mayor is killed in a car crash at that same location from his past. Cliff is immediately suspicious and is on the case to find the truth.
Star of the show, Allen Laverty, played the role of the plucky detective Cliff with a great balance of gallant confidence and wary hesitance. The performer depicted the complex character with honour and integrity. Cliff had witnessed a few vehicle accidents in the past, and now suffered with PTSD. Laverty walked the edge of melodrama in scenes depicting those triggered reactions, but unlike most moments in the show, it never seemed like these were played for the laughs. This authenticity also shined in scenes where Cliff tried to reconnect with their family, both in reality and in their haunting past. That being said, they still certainly held their own playing the straight-faced with the comedic ensemble.
Playing Elliot, this production marks Emily Liu’s professional theatre debut. The young performer played the angsty standoffish teen with plenty of side-eyes and a very bold and unabashed presence. The performance was a graceful and passionate depiction of an outwardly strong but hurting teen. Elliot had a few heartbreaking monologues which were performed meaningfully but somewhat detached, with the focus more on delivery than on authenticity. Liu certainly shows the markings of a powerhouse performer, and I look forward to seeing them on stage again soon.
Playing the hard-headed mother and grandmother was the wonderful Kate Wilson. Whilst running the local newsagent, the character is straightforward with their communication with speckles of excellent dry humour. Throughout the piece, Wilson skilfully depicted the character’s hidden affections beneath their ploys for apathy. The twinkles of care beneath the no-nonsense depiction made the fleeting moments of sentimentality all the more touching.
As part of the ensemble, Helen Cassidy transitions between polar opposite characters with ease. Both of them were hilarious depictions of classic Australian stereotypes – a flighty Karen in her newest Camilla dress with way too much enthusiasm about real-estate; and the angsty teen who’s a bit dodgy and never takes off her Maroons sportswear. Cassidy paid great attention to the characters’ physicalities, and had a wonderfully engaging stage presence that was never overwhelming.
Another member of the ensemble, Peter Cossar was an absolute laugh. Even when portraying a dying man, the performer still manages to capture the audience. Their entrances as the elderly lotto addict was hilarious yet all too real. The doddering character would no doubt take advantage of unwitting sympathisers to buy another scratchie. When playing the more foreboding and threatening characters, the performer still maintained lilts of humour at the edges. Cossar did a very good job of bringing the light even when things got dark.
Rounding off the ensemble is the electrifying Anna Yen. As she flies in and out of scenes, Yen’s playful and charming presence on stage always took the spotlight. In particular, the comical performance of the dirtbag teen was absolutely hysterical. More significantly, Yen also appears as Cliff’s ex throughout the piece. Their spirited performance beautifully reflected the sentiments around this character as each time they appeared the world seemed to get a little brighter.
Ella Lincoln designed a fantastic aesthetic for the performance. The set design was striking yet very simple. Stylised with black and off-white colouring, the symbolic set pieces were a very suave hat tip to the black-and-white and sepia aesthetics of the original noir films. The comical cardboard cutouts in lieu of actual props were highly amusing. Instead of using actual cars on stage (which would be very expensive), the performers would hold up cartoonish cutouts while the detective stagehands wheeled them around the room on office chairs.
The technical aspects of the play were equally as impressive. The Sound Designer, Emma Burchell, did a great job supporting the action of the play and made full use of the directional speakers. It was a harrowing experience hearing the sounds of the car crash scenes truly surrounded the audience. Glenn Hughes, the Lighting Designer, clearly also had a fun time designing the show with clever lighting that effectively separated the stage into clear locations.
Bridget Boyle, fellow co-founder and director at debase should be very proud of the show she has created. With a story that’s caught between a bogan soap-opera and a noir detective story, her direction very effectively toed the line of melodrama. She interspersed the moving monologues and darker themes with moments of comedy that were enough to lighten the mood without becoming silly.
With a robust cast and highly stylised staging, the creative forces at debase have created a remarkable production. Fun, cunning, and surprisingly complex, ‘Death in a Statesman’ was a thoroughly entertaining piece of Australian theatre.
The premier season of ‘Death in a Statesman’ performed until Saturday, 12 November at the Judith Wright Centre. For more information visit their website: https://debase.com.au/shows/death-in-a-statesman/