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Photo by Zac Kaczmarek

Lost Boys

Merrigong Theatre Company presents the world premiere of LOST BOYS, by Lachlan Philpott, in the Bruce Cameron Theatre, at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre (IPAC), Wollongong. 23 May - 2 June.

LOST BOYS, is a new Australian play from Lachlan Philpott, commissioned by the Merrigong Theatre Company. It is based on the crimes of gang violence and murder centred in the community of Bondi Beach, that has also been featured in a recent documentary and television series (SBS Television).

The first act of the play is set in 1985, Prime Minister Hawke. The second act of the play is set in 2017, Prime Minister Turnbull. The location of the play is in the beach suburb of Bondi and concerns three generations of the local Murphy family.

In 1985, two brothers Robert and Cy, and his girlfriend, are part of the surfer-gang culture, riding the waves by day and getting vicarious thrills bashing and murdering gays (“faggots”) at night, in a cliffside park. They got away with it, despite some attention from police of the time. In the second act of the play, it is 2017, and a television documentary investigates these crimes and stirs the NSW Police to re-open investigation. The gang perpetrators now grown and with their own families are once again under suspicion, there is police contact, and the family history threatens to confront, fracture, break. Time has moved on and attitudes are different. The family generations are at odds and the barely suppressed brooding evil seeps up to the light.

Some 30 of the murders remain unsolved and the now retired detectives who delivered a 2,000 page report into the crimes concluded that it was ‘almost beyond certain’ that the cold cases could be attributed to the same gangs responsible for the murders that were solved. Says Lachlan Philpott in his program notes:

Shocked … I was compelled to ask many questions. What made these teenage gangs do such evil things? What kind of society could have allowed them to do and get away with it? How had it happened over and over again? Now that the perpetrators of these crimes have kids of their own, how do they live with and reconcile the legacy of their acts? And, could this happen again? … The queer community were lulled into believing that their contemporary Australian society had shifted significantly (in attitude) from the 80’s and 90’s. Until the hate and violence so openly on display during the 2017 Marriage Equality campaign raised doubts that anything had changed at all. … (Although the play cannot adequately memorialise the losses) perhaps it can make tears in the chthonic and terrible underthread of Australia’s toxic obsession with masculinity and allow people to understand the dreadful damage that fatuous obsession spawns.

Director, Leland Kean has a company of only 8 actors so that Josh Anderson, Adam Booth, Jackson Davis, Lucy Heffernan, Jodie Le Vesconte, Ben Pfeiffer, Jane Phegan, Lincoln Vickery, play all the characters of the story. Interestingly, the casting makes a unique contribution to this production. Characters in the first act are played by different actors in the second act. This ‘puzzle’ of continuity recognition adds a frisson of tension for the audience – they are made to stay alert. It is, generally, carried out without real obstacle. In fact the second act seemed to gain more credible power in the ‘acting’ stakes.

In the first act not all the company seem to have created a ‘back story’ beyond what is said and done on the command of the writer and so played in a kind of shallow declamatory style, delivering information without real possession of a character, that is, a character as a ‘life-force’ with a motivated history. It produced a style of acting from some of the actors of an old fashioned caricature type – ‘comic’ or ‘soap’ – and a ‘your turn, my turn’ kind. The short scene structure of the writing, encumbered by the necessity of many exits and entrances, by the stage design, may also have contributed to the continuity of disconnection for the audience in their identification with the people of the play. Come to the second act of the production/play, however, and the audience could endow the characterisations with ‘history’ and emotional justification, that collectively built to an immersion of belief, especially in the final scenes, culminating in a powerful contribution from Mr Booth in his interaction with Mr Pfeiffer.

Mr Philpott wrests a play from the terrible history of Bondi Beach in 1985, and a speculative caution of the more recent times of 2017, employing a variety of playwriting techniques in many, many short scenes. There is direct monologue, the usual and familiar interactive scenes between characters, and sometimes poetic choral interludes and long moments of silent pauses, all moving the complexity of the narrative and its moral delving forward with gathering force.

The final moments of the play with the elder Cy sitting centre stage and ominously glaring into the void (the audience) we are confronted with a pure evil that has grown in a scorching intensity as prejudice, guilt and shame paralyses this man into an intractable state of venomous mind. Unlike the recent STALKING THE BOGEYMAN, at the Old Fitz, LOST BOYS embraces the Dostoyevskian ideal of confronting the consequences of “True Crime” and exposes a society’s collective guilt and the consequences for all of the society that has allowed it to be nurtured. (see Blog comment). It is a challenging demand made on the audience as complicit witnesses, who have, mostly, elected to remain silent.

Mr Philpott, has demonstrated in the past with other of his works: e.g. COLDER, SILENT DISCO, TRUCKSTOP, M.ROCK, and last year, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, an uncanny ear for the accuracy of the argot of the ‘tribes’ of his concern, through verbative observation, that are sculptured into a unique kind of prose poetics. Listening to the interactions, the conversations, the language has an illusion of familiar ‘reality’ but on close listening (or inspection) the subtle manipulation of the words as text reveal imagery and musicalities that lift the work into a more sophisticated experience. This is true of the LOST BOYS, as well. Mr Philpott can be both Lyricist and Composer, demonstrated in the care of his language and syntax usage.

Merrigong Theatre Company as the commissioner of this work has, as well, recognised the potential of this play as a significant contribution to the Australian playwriting canon and facilitated a major production effort to bring it to life. Leland Kean has encouraged his artistic collaborators into a visual splendour that utilises a vast input from Projection Designer, Mic Gruchy, that is projected on to the cyclorama, and a large frontispiece of set structure, and on the floors of the space – this Bruce Cameron Theatre has a ‘severe’ raked auditorium perspective, so that the audience has an overview of all those elements. The look, using video-action and still photographic images, conjures the locations as a secure and vivid background to support the action of the play. It is a significant offer and was, undoubtedly, extremely complicated to produce for each performance – the ‘bump-in’ into the theatre would have been ‘trying’ to say the least – it was worth it.

The intricacies of the Lighting Design to facilitate the Projection Design without diminishing it and still covering the actors, so that they could be seen ( be read), by Jasmine Rizk, is amazing. The Sound Designer, Daryl Wallis, has completed the ‘narrative’ illusion of this work with much subtlety for period identification and dramatic structuring. Designer, Katja Handt, with her Set Design, has tried to find a solution to render the visuals of Mr Gruchy powerfully and, as well, to facilitate the difficulties of actor entrance and exit, in what is a multi-short scene playwriting structure that has not been completely solved by Mr Kean’s ultimate decision making and, as it is at present, inhibits the full symphonic sweep of the writing – the music is held up, sometimes, with the banal physical obstacles, that the actors encounter, just to get onto the stage. The Costume Design by Ms Handt, is just as complicated but delivered well.

LOST BOYS, is certainly a major work. Lachlan Philpott is an interesting writer, nay, more than that, I reckon, as this play, the latest we have witnessed in the Body of his Playwriting, must surely place him as one of the more Important voices on the contemporary Australian stage. His social conscience content pre-occupation, the worlds he asks us to concernedly examine, along with his beautiful language and ‘musical’ skills must approximate him highly. One hopes this play, and or production, reaches the major city theatres and a larger audience.

This regional company: Merrigong, has achieved much in producing this work, LOST BOYS.

P.S. It was worth the train ride to Wollongong, there and back. Later this month (28th June-30th June) the Australian Dance Theatre (ADT), from Adelaide, led by Gary Stewart, is performing. This Internationally acclaimed company is NOT performing in Sydney – how odd! ???? Merrigong is doing something well and the train ride there and back will be well rewarded, I’m sure.