Theatre review: Amy’s Tattoo

Nature, nurture and the slippery laws of attraction.

Amy’s Tattoo, by emerging playwright Alison Mann, developed as part of Blue Cow Theatre’s Cow Shed script development program, explores the possible effects of uncertain biological heritage, and speculates that genetics are ultimately stronger than nurture.

A 16-year-old boy, John Smith (Matt Newell), goes searching for his biological mother when he discovers that he had been conceived via an egg donated by Amy Lock, a free-spirited tattoo artist (Lisa Gormley).

His parents have kept his biological origins a secret, and his mother, Rose Ward (Jane Longhurst), is focused on her busy career as a member of parliament.

Rose’s world is fractured when she discovers that her son has been regularly seeing Amy, forging an intense bond – their genetic connection manifesting as a series of flirtatious and sexual encounters. Into all this comes Detective Constable Jennifer Crossings (Gabrielle Adkins), investigating Amy for possible abuse of a minor.

The set design, following a concept by Dean Hills, consists of a wide square of pale carpet, a white tattoo studio chair, (which also serves as a canoe and bar), and surrounding black scrim curtains, which allow for Jason James’ subtle use of fleshy toned light. This minimal design is complemented by Heath Brown’s delicate sound score which suggests waves, the insect-like sounds of a tattoo gun, and the movement of blood and fluid.

The abstract nature of the set and lighting suggests that characters are entering and exiting in non-realistic spaces of memory and regret. It’s refreshing to see the Earl Arts Centre so uncluttered, but director Sarah Carradine keeps the use of space limited to conventional side-by-side action. The broad modernist playing space and wide lighting states begin to work against the possibility of connection between the characters and the audience, as the performers revolve around each other in a space that looks abstract, while they are playing a realist text.

Mann’s play has passages of great dialogue and witty insights but the ambitious nature of the text at times overwhelms the storytelling. The performers work hard to convey the story progression, which tends to elide key moments of discovery and revelation. Longhurst plays the ‘career woman’ who has sacrificed true connection with her child for her work in the political sphere. It’s a little wearying to see this trope represented yet again, but Longhurst finds moments of inner life, especially in a monologue where she recalls the birth of her son.

Newell captures the explosive energy of a 16-year-old, but the source of his underlying motives and darker emotions are unclear. Gormley keeps it flirty and smiley throughout the action, which confuses the character’s motives. Amy has an offstage partner, Angus, who discovers the frequent texts from John on Amy’s phone. The device of addressing a character offstage is one driven by the cruel economics of limited arts funding in Tasmania, however. Gormley, Longhurst, Adkins and Newell, summon context and dramatic conflict out of engagements with phantom offstage characters.

Adkins brings fresh energy to every scene as the mysteriously context-less Detective Crossing. As a closet gay cop, she is also bulimic, and confesses to incest. Too many ‘topical issues’ for one character to bear, you’d think, but Adkins pulls it off, keeping the delivery sardonic, but able to shift into moments which reveal the inner life of the character.  

Amy’s Tattoo seeks to highlight the issue of biological connectedness and the search for identity. There is clearly an appetite for Tasmanian plays, and it was a pleasure to see a close to full house for a new work. Although the total package didn’t cohere, Blue Cow Theatre is a key driver of the development and realisation of Tasmanian work, which the company pursues with courage, tenacity, and professionalism. 

Amy’s Tattoo by Alison Mann
Blue Cow Theatre, Tasmania

Director: Sarah Carradine
Producer: Lucinda Toynbee Wilson
Sound designer: Heath Brown
Set design concept: Dean Hills
Lighting design: Jason James
Stage Manager: Melissa King
Cast: Gabrielle Adkins, Lisa Gormley, Jane Longhurst, Matt Newell

Amy’s Tattoo was performed at Theatre Royal Studio Hobart from 21-24 September and at
Earl Arts Centre Launceston from 30 September-1 October 2022.

Jane Woollard is a director and playwright, and Senior Lecturer Theatre and Performance, University of Tasmania.