Theatre review: Australian Gothic Tales, The Butterfly Club

A lacklustre presentation of Australian stories that sidesteps Gothic elements entirely.
Australian Gothic Tales. Five men and women stand in front of a red curtain looking at the camera and smiling.

It’s a compelling concept – bringing Gothic stories with an Australian twist to the stage. How does the genre, birthed in the gloom of Europe, translate to our vast and ancient sunburnt land? This is not, however, an idea that Louise Baxter, writer and director of Australian Gothic Tales, explores.

The production presents a series of six short vignettes, delivered as monologues. Baxter has written five of the six stories and uses Adam Scullin’s ‘The Boxer’ to round out a production just shy of an hour in length. 

The six stories cover an array of mature themes from drug addiction to manslaughter to the impact of asbestos poisoning. Baxter’s choice of topics, narrative choices and writing style are trite and heavy-handed. Take the tram driver in therapy after someone commits suicide by jumping in front of her tram, for instance. It quickly spirals into melodrama when the driver goes to the bathroom, pulls out a tourniquet, shoots up, goes back to the therapist and reveals she’s been hallucinating about a helpful angel. There’s no resolution. 

Some stories are particularly hard to follow, such as the soldier coming home from the Vietnam War a decade after it ends, likely due to PTSD, but this isn’t quite clearly established. Suddenly a woman – perhaps the soldier’s girlfriend, fiancée or wife – takes to the stage to describe women’s similarities to trees when they’re in love… or something.

For Baxter, it seems topics that could be described as “dark” or “edgy” equate to the Gothic genre. However, Gothic characteristics, no matter in which country they’re based, are fairly rigid: a sense of unease, foreboding nature, undertones of eroticism and hints of the supernatural, to name a few. The six vignettes lack the subtlety and careful unfurling required to create a sense of other worldly or unnatural danger lurking beneath the ever-blistering Australian sun. The stories create a sense of confusion instead.

The blocking is just as pedestrian as the writing; nothing much happens on stage and nothing seems purposeful. This at times leads to awkward performances reminiscent of high school drama productions. It’s a constant struggle for the cast to keep the audience on side throughout their performances. Performers Capri Walsh and Callum O’Mara deliver interpretations that come across as genuine – in part due to their confidence with their lines. The lighting is basic and the costumes seem more at home at an open mic night.

Read: Opera review: Orpheus & Eurydice, Sydney Festival

Given each story only goes for around 10 minutes, the production moves quickly enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. With such a good concept, here’s hoping further development of the production will be undertaken. 

Australian Gothic Tales
The Butterfly Club

Writer and Director: Louise Baxter
Featuring ‘The Boxer’ story by Adam Scullin
Cast: Alice Benn-Lawler, Callum O’Mara, Capri Walsh, Celia Handscombe, Evangelos Arabatzis, Tristan Sicari

Tickets: $29-$39

Australian Gothic Tales will be performed until 20 January 2024.

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