There are very few plays that I know back to front the way I do Away by Michael Gow.
Not only was it a theatre piece that I had to study in English during my VCE, but I was also cast in a production of it when I was at university. To be honest, it is a play that I have thought about a lot over the years. Friends and I regularly reminisce about it, and I often think about how some of the themes of it have touched my personal life over the years.
When I heard that there was to be a production of Away at Theatre Works, I was pumped. After all these years, I was finally going to see this amazing story played out on stage once more. But this didn’t completely turn out to be the production I was hoping for.
First of all, the production kind of started amidst confusion for the audience. For those that know Away, know that the play starts as a high school performance of Shakespeare’s classic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Normally the production starts with the headmaster’s speech as he thanks the students and parents for attending.
But with this Theatre Works production, director Steven Mitchell Wright has decided to have young actors from CollArts acting out A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the audience enters the theatre. This seemed to cause confusion with audience members whispering, “Has the play started?” and tripping over those already seated as they rushed to their seats. The confusion seemed to get worse because some of the actual cast of Away were on stage during that time as well.
It was a shame that the production started off like this because once the actual production of Away began, I found that I was in for an absolute treat. Wright truly understood this much-loved play and the talented cast were completely on point.
Away has a simple plot as it revolves around three families and is set in the summer of 1967/68. First there is the headmaster Roy (Stephen Tall) and his wife Coral (Linda Cookson). Roy is a good man, proud of his students, but is suffering in his personal life. He and Coral had lost their son in the Vietnam War and Coral has never been the same since. After embarrassing him at the school production, Roy wants to pull the pin on their Gold Coast holiday but Coral begs him to reconsider and says if they do go away, she promises to try and be ‘normal’.
Then there is Meg (Cait Spiker) who finds herself on the backfoot when her co-star in the school production, Tom (Rupert Evan), lets on that he likes her backstage. Their awkwardness is only made worse when her mother, Gwen (Eleanor Howlett), makes a horrible comment about Tom’s family being “poor new Australians” which Tom overhears.
The three families then head away up the coast for the holidays. Meg and her father, Jim (Justin Hosking), are still fuming at Gwen’s behaviour while Tom’s parents, Harry (Iopu Auva’a) and Vic (Stefanie Falasca), just want to provide a happy trip for their son. Of course, though things don’t go as plan and soon all three families find themselves running into each over during the holiday period.
Despite the early hiccup, I did soon find myself once again falling in love with Away. The simplistic set allowed me to concentrate more on the themes of Gow’s words. This is a heavy piece to take in with themes of loss, class, mental illness and families in disarray are played out right in front of you with the script and cast providing just enough humour here and there to keep the audience sane.
The power of this production though comes from its cast. Rupert Evan and Cait Spiker are brilliant as the younger cast members while Justin Hosking is also a stand-out as the hen-pecked Jim. He is one of those actors that can portray all his character’s emotions with just a glance or body movement, and I will remember his performance for a long time to come.
Also stunning were Linda Cookson and Stephan Tall. Cookson was amazing as the emotionally damaged Coral and the way she moved across the stage at times really did make you feel like she was haunting it like the ‘ghost’ that Roy calls her early on the script. Stephan Tall was brilliant opposite her and with the director enhancing a musical side to Away that some productions leave out, Tall’s amazing vocal range came to the forefront and he consistently stole the show time and time again.
Steven Mitchell Wright makes some pretty brave calls with this production of Away. Some of it works, setting this performance apart from others and breathing new life into this treasured piece of Australian theatre. Sadly, some decisions also do not. Still, I did find that once again I fell in love with this play thanks largely to the performances of the amazing cast who brought these much-loved characters to life amazingly well. For that, I am thankful as once again got to see Away on a stage in front of me.
Away is playing at Theatre Works until July 22.
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Photography by Daniel Rabin.