This is at least the fifth time I’ve seen a production of David Williamson’s groundbreaking 1971 satire. I don’t recall it being any more impactful than it is here.
Under director Johan Walraven’s watch, The Removalists – a mainstay of HSC study lists for decades – feels timely and vigorous.
Set in a suburban Melbourne police station and a nearby apartment, the play’s principal roles are iconic in Australian theatre: Simmonds, time-serving copper and sexist oaf; Ross, the raw recruit whose worst instincts are stimulated; Kate, the savvy sister of the abused Fiona, and Fiona’s husband Kenny, the larrikin who sees nothing wrong in delivering the occasional “love pat” after boozy Friday night in the pub.
Walraven has cast the piece impeccably. Laurence Coy is something of a veteran when it comes to playing Simmonds. He starred in an Old Fitzroy Theatre’s production in 2013 and he brings the same indolent gravitas to this staging – a perfectly judged blend of condescension, bullshit and smarminess that amuses and then appalls as he takes charge of a domestic violence incident reported by sisters Kate and Fiona (Shannon Ryan and Eliza Nicholls, both excellent in temperamentally contrasting roles).
Lloyd Allison-Young provides an ideal comic foil as the rookie Constable Ross. Williamson’s dumb show of mutual assessment at the top of the play is made hilarious and Allison-Young’s comic athleticism serves the play well during the build-up of tension that leads to Ross’s murderous assault on Alfie Gledhill’s unreconstructed yet charismatic Kenny. Xavier Coy turns the role of the furniture remover into a memorable presence.
Walraven expertly balances the play’s black humour and violence – the latter climaxing in a drawn-out piece of fight choreography (by Tim Dashwood) that chills the room with what appears to be the deliberate physical referencing of the death of George Floyd. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one replaying Floyd’s last words at that point.
In contrast, Walraven discreetly blacks out the absurd last moments of the play, just as Simmonds and Ross prepare to beat the living daylights out of each other in order to manufacture an alibi for what in this production – through the casting of Gledhill – is a Black Death in Custody.
Designer Robyn Arthur’s set splits the stage roughly 40/60 between cop shop and apartment. It works well, though the stage right area falls into redundancy as this sharply-paced staging unfolds without interval. There’s no sense of the early 1970s in furnishings or in Andrea Tan’s costuming, which furthers the notion that this 50-year-old play hasn’t dated much at all.
Maybe you’ve seen The Removalists before. Maybe you think you’ve studied it to death. Even so, I think this production will hit you squarely where it hurts.