What future for a nation that undervalues or dismisses the talents of its women?
What future for a country that relies on digging holes in the ground to pay its way in the world?
Oriel Gray’s The Torrents dates back to the post-war Menzies era, its Shavian style a few decades prior. Yet its concerns strike as fresh and, 70 years after it was written, are more urgently in need of address.
The setting is a newspaper office in the mining town of Koolgalla in the 1890s. Gold fever is still burning but there’s a growing sense that it has peaked. The land around is mined out. Koolgalla teeters on the brink of decline, a ghost town in the making.
Two people are about to shake things up. One is Kingsley (played by Luke Carroll), an ambitious young engineer with a proposal for an irrigation scheme that will turn the region into a food bowl. In the future, he argues, gold will come from fruit trees, not from the ground; the other is a journalist, J.G. (Jenny) Milford (Celia Pacquola), recently hired by newspaper proprietor Rufus Torrent (Tony Cogin) in ignorance of her gender. Neither has much reason for optimism or a long-term future in a town like Koolgalla.
They have a supporter in Ben Torrent (Gareth Davies), the talented but spoiled newspaperman’s son and an implacable foe in the rapacious mining magnate John Manson (Steve Rodgers), an investor in the paper who expects it to dance to his tune.
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A leading light of Sydney’s radical New Theatre movement in the 1940s and a Communist Party member until 1950, Gray’s writing is unabashedly feminist and left-progressive – which may, in part, explain why The Torrents went unproduced for decades, despite being the joint winner of the 1955 Playwrights’ Advisory Board’s Best Play award with Ray Lawler’s The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.
Gray’s piercing intellect and playwriting skill is immediately apparent. The Torrents is nothing if not well made. Her weaving of socio-political and romantic concerns with passages of comic business is expert. She sketches her characters boldly and upends the conventions of a period play – notably the requirement for romantic closure – cleverly.
This production, directed by Black Swan artistic director Clare Watson, comes to Sydney after a debut season in Perth. It’s handsome (a Renée Mulder design, lit by Lucy Birkinshaw), thoroughly run in, and illuminates Gray’s ideas strongly. Not for nothing are Kingsley’s plans for the future voiced by an Indigenous man. Weighty ideas and knockabout humour co-exist comfortably.
Virginia Gay serves as dramaturg on the project and those who saw the recent production of Calamity Jane may sense tonal similarities between Koolgalla and Deadwood City.
Much effort has been expended in making every entrance and exit as interesting as possible. Some more could be spent on a couple of passages in which tension and purpose seem to evaporate.
Pacquola brings wit, strength and charm to the role of Jenny Milford, though there are times when she could drive her scenes harder than she does. Davies expertly dances the line between appealing and deplorable as Ben wrestles with his attraction to Jenny (while engaged to Gwynne, a Koolgalla belle played by Emily Rose Brennan) and his loyalty to the charismatic Rufus, excellently played by Cogin.
Rodgers is a coarse and blustery Manson and there are nimble comic touches added by Rob Johnson (apprentice Bernie), Geoff Kelso (Christy, an intolerable windbag) and Sam Longley as the steadfast sub-editor Jock.
Sound designer-composer Joe Paradise Lui’s work wrinkles the picture in an interesting way, but compared to recent Sydney Theatre Company offerings, this is a conservative production. Many will be pleased that it is. But I’m not sure it captures the playwright’s radical spirit.