Melbourne Theatre Company: Torch the Place – Theatre Review

As an Australian of mixed Asian ethnicity (Malaysian-Chinese and Filipino), it is very rare, if at all, that I feel represented when I view theatre in Melbourne. Even though I love it so, I can’t really relate to a lot of the stories that I witness unfold on stage, despite how enjoyable they are. But last night at Melbourne Theatre Company’s original production of Torch the Place by Benjamin Law, I was taken on an emotional roller-coaster journey that hit close to home.

Directed by Dean Bryant, MTC’s Torch the Place follows the lives of a Chinese family located in Queensland, Australia who wish to help their mother declutter her life from all the odd items and unnecessary objects that she has collected over the years, which cannot seem to be let go due to their emotional value.

In what starts off as a kind and thoughtful gift for their mother’s 60th birthday, turns into not only an intervention, but a painful, traumatising and emotionally heavy experience for everyone. Despite the deep and dark paths that Torch the Place lead us through, the play still manages to sustain its fun and cleverly inserted humour, which never feels forced nor out of place; a testament to the brilliant writing by Law and acting from a very talented cast.

All 5 cast members had their chance to shine on the Fairfax Studio stage, and were solid throughout the performance I witnessed. Diana Lin, known as the mother of Awkwafina in The Farewell, plays the loving and stubborn Mum of Teresa, Natalie and Toby, portrayed by Fiona Choi, Michelle Lim Davidson and Charles Wu respectively. Together with Teresa’s husband Paul played by Max Brown, the dysfunctional family attempt to give their mother some space within her home, while driving each other crazy sorting through the mess (both figuratively and literally), as families often do. Teresa is the responsible daughter who is the carer of the family, Natalie is the favourite child who is also a social media influencer, and Toby is the more thought-provoking of the three and somewhat emotionally burdened only son.

Not only is the writing and acting of Torch the Place outstanding, but I must commend the work of set designer Isabel Hudson. The way the cluttered house was formed and then taken apart so easily, I can’t even begin to image how difficult it must’ve been to design and create organised chaos.

Torch the Place kept me captivated for the entirety of its 90-minute duration, the cast generously equipped with Benjamin Law’s impressive (if not almost intimidating) musings. I saw pieces of myself and my family in Law’s characters. I laughed, I cried, and in the end, I just really wanted to go back home and hug my mother, who just so happens to have taken time off from work to pack up her belongings as she has to move house soon. Admittedly, my mum also has an incredible number of items and various belongings that I feel (much like the children in the play) she doesn’t need. And this is only just one of the things mentioned in Benjamin Law’s play that I felt collided with my own life.

Perhaps to some, these characters may not seem believable, but for both myself and my guest who also is of Asian descent, we almost saw our own lives before us on that Arts Centre Melbourne stage.

If you must see only one theatre show this year, please let it be this one. I promise, you don’t have to be from an Asian background to enjoy it. Although, it can help if you understand Cantonese. There is minimal dialogue in Chinese during the play, but many of it is translated. So, it is okay if you don’t understand Chinese as it won’t hinder your experience. During the viewing that I attended, the audience were culturally diverse and yet still laughed and cried just as much as I did, all rising to a standing ovation by the end, which is uncommon with most MTC opening nights that I have experienced thus far.

Torch the Place is born out of a place of love and is a loving tribute to all the resilient mums who could have succumbed to their sorrows, yet somehow kept fighting. This play is both tear-jerking and hilarious at the same time, which is no ordinary feat. I am so thankful that the Melbourne Theatre Company were courageous enough to take on this smart play. Honestly, we need more writers like Benjamin Law to lend their talents to the theatre and bring relatable domestic Australian stories to the centre stage.

MTC’s Torch the Place is now playing at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio until Monday the 23rd of March and is part of the 2020 ASIA TOPA program.

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Photography by Jeff Busby.

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