There are few works of Australian theatre as famed as Michael Gow’s Away. A tragicomedy set during our nation’s summer of 1967, the unearthliness of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – performed by teenagers Tom (Rupert Bevan) and Meg (Cait Spiker) at their school at the opening of the play – mingles with the all-too-human tensions and aspirations of three holidays that converge. Admissions of love and inner turmoil emerge, blurring the lines between art and life.
Theatre Works’ remarkably engaging interpretation of this classic isn’t without solemnity but, unlike the latest big production of Away, staged by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2017, it prefers humour. There is gleeful dancing, vibrant lighting and Elizabethan ruffs accenting otherwise era-appropriate outfits. The ensemble, who are either expressive in the style of parody or as still as statues for no small amount of time, are – in a risk that pays off – painted Smurf-blue, enhancing the surrealism without distracting from the central, mortal action.
The action is impressive. The airy grief of Coral, wife of school principal Roy, displaced from reality by the death of their son in the Vietnam War, is made captivating by Linda Cookson, who drifts across the stage in sunglasses, seeming utterly untouchable. In a wonderful contrast, the hard-boiled gripes about class and decency from Meg’s mother, Gwen, are invigorated by Eleanor Howlett’s stellar comedic timing. The men tend to be more sober: Stephen Tall’s Roy is a quintessential Australian patriarch, close to combusting, but willing himself to hold it together through logic and jocularity. As Meg’s husband, Jim, Justin Hosking is endearingly imploring and retiring.
Possibly because greater emphasis is given to temperament than to the dynamics between characters, the show does feel hollow and devoid of chemistry at points. Though at every turn, Away’s earnestness and snappy back-and-forth make a solid, likeable impression.
Not all themes are transmitted as strongly or seamlessly as they ought to be from scene to scene. The tragedy looming for Tom is a crux of Away, and the need to indicate this darkness before Act Two seems to have been overlooked, or to have become lost in the ample comedy.
A high-spirited character intent on sitting tight to please his parents, Tom’s eventual outburst would hit harder if his earlier instances of evasion regarding his diagnosis were more apparent. The sombreness, when it does come, is done well – credit is due especially to Iopu Auva’a, as Harry, for his hardened, convincing speech about his son’s plight – but feels forgotten by the ensuing scene of a beachside pantomime. More balanced acting, or even just a smattering of lingering pauses for us to absorb the narrative’s more delicate contexts, would leaven Away.
The show ends with a tableau so brilliant and beautiful, so exemplary of what the stage alone is capable of achieving, that it clinched the possibility of a better build-up. But even if this iteration of Away isn’t as nuanced as it could be, it is still worth seeing: funny, with some breath-taking visuals, and touchingly attuned to the timelessness of its dreams.
Away by Michael Gow
Director: Steve Mitchell Wright
Cast: Linda Cookson, Stephen Tall, Rupert Bevan, Iopu Auva’a, Stefanie Falasca, Cait Spiker, Justin Hosking, Eleanor Howlett
Away will be performed until 22 July 2023.