by Reg Cribb
The Return is an ideal platform for the talents and aspirations of Springboard Theatre Company. Formed in 2003 by Emma Dean and Luke Wright to fill a perceived gap in Brisbane theatre, this group aims to produce plays that will attract and interest young audiences while providing emerging actors with an opportunity to showcase their talent. The focus on youth, however, does not mean that their productions are all fun, froth and rock-and-roll. Unafraid to tackle confronting topics such as the experience of war, depression, violence and imminent death, Springboard is already noted as a serious company and making an impact on the Queensland scene.
The Return is set in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a Perth train compartment where two young misfits take advantage of a guards’ strike to terrorise the occupants. Though very specific in its references (Western Australian audiences would be particularly aware of the demographics of the route), the play could take place in Sydney, Birmingham, New York, Toronto, or any big city rife with alienation and meaningless violence. Cribb’s play reflects a society where the widening gap between the privileged and those left behind in the race to acquire more and more of the affluence on display everywhere leads to despair.
While such material could easily lend itself to sociological preaching, Cribb avoids a heavy-handed approach. From the first moment of the play when the two ex-cons burst onto the set with their rappers’ attitude and funky moves, the audience knows it will be in for an exciting ride. The ebullience and energy of these two young ratbags makes them perversely attractive, even though we are aware from the beginning that they are looking for trouble. It is they who set the tone and the pace of the show and the director, Jim Vilé, has wisely given his two young actors plenty of scope to bounce the audience into an active engagement with the story.
The play walks the now familiar but tricky line between comedy and menace, with a bit of social commentary and pathos thrown in. By and large it succeeds, keeping tension high throughout, with enough surprise in the ending to enable us to overlook some of the improbability of the denouement. The idea for the play was allegedly triggered by the author’s witnessing a girl on a train being pestered by a couple of young men while the rest of the passengers ignored the situation. This is initially what happens in Cribb’s play, but the trouble-makers here eventually turn their attention to the two other occupants of the compartment, whose reaction is quite unexpected.
Josh McIntosh has done an excellent job in designing a set that looks authentic: with its graffiti-covered windows, worn flooring and broken seats it could be any trashed suburban train. It provides a perfect playground for the two delinquents who swing around the bars with an agility that speaks both of the childish release of the schoolyard and, more unsettlingly, of hours spent working out in the prison gym. This mixture of childishness and grim experience marks both men. Though both dress like carefree youth, each wears on his body the stigmata of prison; Steve with his tattoo, Trev with his needle tracks. With these two, nothing is quite as simple as it seems on the surface and, as they attempt to rattle the cages of their fellow prisoners in the carriage, they discover that other people’s appearances can be equally deceptive.
As Lisa, the quiet young law student who, to our dismay, joins Steve and Trev in an otherwise empty carriage, Emma Dean is a convincing potential victim. As she withstands their attentions our admiration for her courage grows, only to be shaken later as the play unfolds. In the difficult role of Simon, the writer whose off-stage narration introduces the action at the beginning of the play, David Kiernan is equally convincing as a seemingly innocent and ineffectual bystander who is caught up in a situation he would prefer merely to observe. His metamorphosis is very unsettling, and it is to the actor’s credit that he remains convincing in a somewhat contrived ending to the play.
Catherine Glavicic is stunningly good as Maureen, the worn-out suburban mum, a gem of a part of which this actress relishes every moment. With her dry humour and tough worldliness, Maureen is more than a match for the young men, but Steve’s insights into the background that they share are very disturbing for her. Glavicic has a great sense of comic timing which this part gives her plenty of opportunities to display, but she is also capable of showing us Maureen’s recognition of herself, caught in the same hopeless spiral as the men, but eventually exercising a choice. Like her, we do not know at the end of the play whether or not it is the right choice. For the optimists in the audience her decision to make the return journey might be seen as a glimmer of hope; for the pessimists it could be a return to a meaningless treadmill. Certainly, for her fellow passengers the train journey has ended in distress and disillusion.
For this play to work well it needs Steve and Trev to be a very plausible couple of louts, and in Gavin Ingham and Luke Wright Jim Vilé has found as dangerous (though oddly likeable) a pair of villains as I have seen on the Brisbane stage. Luke Wright kept reminding me of the young David Wenham’s wonderful pyromaniac, Doug, in Louis Nowra’s Cosi. Though slighter than his companion, Wright’s Trev appeared volatile, thoughtlessly cruel, and in some ways the more disturbed and disturbing of the pair. Gavin Ingham’s Steve was totally intimidating; equally unpredictable, he seemed ready to explode into terrible violence at any provocation. From the opening moments he and Trev appeared as partners engaged in a complex dance, whether it be in miming extravagant guitar riffs, swinging around like acrobats, or circling each other as they prowled the compartment. Their closeness was both mesmerising and very unsettling.
Steve is by far the most well-developed character in the play and Ingham makes him really come alive. He has the physicality, the muso’s showmanship, the vocal range and the ability to make us believe in this complex thug who draws so many different responses from the audience in the course of the play. At the beginning we see him as no more than a mindless bully, but later it is clear that, though a small-time crim and a loser, he is very self-aware. His analysis of the stratum of society he comes from, where the only time a male really feels he has power is when he has a gun in his hand, and where the best career move for a girl is to get pregnant, is acute. He tells us that he has used his time in prison to get some sort of an education, but neither he nor anyone else in the play can offer any hope of change.
There appears little place for love in the lives of any of these characters, but a memory of being loved lingers for some of them as they approach the terminus. Among the many disclosures and discoveries that occur at the end of the play, perhaps the most surprising is the revelation that Steve has, in the past, performed an act of great compassion in concealing a distressing truth. It is a powerful moment and could easily be overplayed, and it is greatly to Gavin Ingham’s credit that he takes the audience with him in the painful journey Steve is forced to take, through to its bleak conclusion.
In The Return, Reg Cribb has captured an aspect of modern Australian life that is instantly recognisable in all its vigour, raciness and violence, and this production does it full justice. The play has been adapted for film and retitled Last Tram to Freo – well worth looking out for.
Directed by Jim Vilé
Playing until 12 August 2006: Evenings 7:30pm, matinee Saturday 12 August, 5pm
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes (no interval)