Musical review: Driftwood, Chapel off Chapel

A well-meaning but middle of the road production of an earnest Australian story.

It feels like a personal faux pas to be watching Driftwood, an original Australian musical about Jewish survival, on a Friday night instead of attending a Shabbat dinner, but this production is too intriguing to pass up. 

Driftwood tells the story of Slawa and Karl Duldig’s perilous journey across the world seeking refuge from the genocidal events of the Holocaust and how they, and daughter Eva de Jong-Duldig, made a home in Australia.

The musical is based on Eva’s memoir Driftwood: Escape and Survival Through Art, and an original stage play by Jane Bodie. The current production is a reworked version of the original musical, which was first staged in May 2022. Directed by Gary Abrahams, it features original music and lyrics by Anthony Barnhill, with additional lyrics by Bodie and Eva’s daughter Tania de Jong.

The latter, an accomplished performer, is producer and creator of this new work, and also plays the role of Slawa, her grandmother. This production, then, is a work three generations in the making with much passion and care behind it.

De Jong and Abrahams have brought together a talented team of cast and crew but, as the character of Eva says as she opens the show, something’s missing. 

The musical form works well to move the characters across time and space quickly. It also enhances emotional gravitas and levity where required. Despite this, the songs by Anthony Barnhill aren’t the type to stick in your head, and the adaptation struggles to reshape the memoir format into a three-act story for the stage. The result is something halfway between a Come From Away-style true story musical and a This Is Your Life episode. This is particularly true for the second act, which drags towards the finish.

However, the use of video footage is very well integrated into the production. Abrahams seamlessly moves the audience’s focus between the screen, thoughtfully designed to look like aged paper, and the action happening below it. This heightens suspense during the Duldigs’ escape from Europe and draws on the heartstrings during poignant moments in Act Two. 

The group numbers are emotionally rousing and show off the technical skill of a very experienced cast. Everyone plays their part well, with Michaela Burger as Rella particularly effective in drawing out the production’s themes of hope and loss, but there’s a lack of cohesion between the cast that is exacerbated by noticeably different singing styles. 

The set dressing by Jacob Battista is superb, bringing into question whether the props are recreations or bona fide pieces from the Duldig Studio museum. 

Read: Theatre review: Macbeth, Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne

I expected to find representation in a story such as this and I was not disappointed. It was even more delightful that such a story could be told from an Australian perspective. Driftwood acts as a reminder that we must always fight tirelessly not to repeat the events of the Holocaust anywhere in the world toward any people. More importantly, it also showcases the dangers refugees face and, while the production itself does not link Slawa and Karl’s experience to the more recent plight of refugees attempting to find safety in Australia, it hopefully invites audiences to reflect on this issue too. 

However, there are too many niggling moments in this restaging to get swept up in the story and performances. 

Based on the memoir by Eva de Jong-Duldig and the play by Jane Bodie
Music and Lyrics: Anthony Barnhill
Director: Gary Abrahams
Tickets: $39.90-$69.90

Driftwood will be performing until 20 May at Chapel Off Chapel, Melbourne before touring to various venues in Sydney from 31 May to 18 June 2023.

Jenna Schroder is an emerging arts critic, with a background in dance and voice, and an organiser at the Media, Entertainment, Arts Alliance. Outside of her union activism, Jenna can be found performing at The Improv Conspiracy, around the Melbourne comedy scene and producing independent work across multiple platforms. Twitter: @jennaschroder00