Shake & stir theatre co’s world premiere adaptation of Shannon Molloy’s best-selling memoir, Fourteen, is very much a tale for our times and one that certainly needs to be heard. Set in Yeppoon, where Molloy grew up, it depicts the real-life story of suffering through Year 9 at a regional all-boys, rugby-mad Catholic school in 1999. This is a candid examination of what it was like for a young, sometimes confused, fourteen-year-old growing up as a gay young man in a heavily homophobic environment.
The play has a raw energy portraying a world that is in equal part both disturbing and frightening, but also with moments that are uplifting and full of love. Molloy’s honesty shines throughout as the play unfolds, while there is a good smattering of self-awareness and humour to make it a rounded and ultimately moving and heart-warming story.
Adaptors Nelle Lee and Nick Stubij, who worked with Molloy to transform his 320-page paperback into a 90-minute show, have crafted a well-thought through and intelligent script that addresses head-on the issues raised. The school bullying and sickening traumatic situations faced by Molloy are brought all too vividly to life, as is his attempt to take his own life, which is all too horrifying. At the same time there are moments of real tenderness in the writing that show both his resilience and hope, with supportive friends and a loving family.
The play starts sometime in the present with the protagonist in a very good place – we learn later that it is his wedding day. He looks back on the worse year of his life in 1999 with both nostalgia and the knowledge that he escaped to a better place. The series of flashbacks, depicted with lighting and sound effects akin to a scratchy old 78 record, were well managed.
Molloy recalls life in Yeppoon with his two best friends, Morgan and Nicole, here gloriously depicted by Amy Ingram and Helen Cassidy as two rough, fun-loving, smoking, drinking 14-somethings. They do a ‘lap’ around the shopping centre, the only place to hang out of a night, with some hilarious glimpses of the shops and shopkeepers that sets the scene perfectly for what is to come. We then move to school, a chaotic and all too believable, if possibly exaggerated, place that is his personal hell.
From the outset, director Skubij, sets a perfectly realised tone for this work, as well as the time and place of the story with accuracy and understanding of its characters. It is directed in a series of mostly short scenes around the various venues in Yeppoon, including the school and Molloy’s home, which flow quickly and quite seamlessly. Skubij has a very keen eye for detail in his cast of so many distinctive characters, while directing a strong and almost flawless production. The serious and tough scenes are well complemented by those of humour and hilarity, as to be expected in a predominantly teenage and coming of-age story, helping to make the play a rounded whole.
Skubij was assisted by designer Josh McIntosh’s set of a traditional and unremarkable two-storey Queensland house, used as a backdrop with the ability to transform quickly from home to school room, various venues around Yeppoon, party scenes and a fashion parade to name a few. The judicious use of a small revolve with set pieces and furniture that were brought on and off by the multi-talented cast helped the action to flow.
Fabien Holford’s costumes are a fine mixture of accurate period daily wear and school uniforms, with extravagant over-the-top well-chosen party clothes. The lighting by Trent Suidgeest greatly assisted to set the many scenes with bright daylight and atmospheric night scenes and extravagant party and dance lighting. Guy Webster’s soundscape, with its depiction of road noise, bird calls and lapping water, plus the choice of 90s music and songs from the likes of Shania Twain and the Spice Girls, added greatly to the overall feel of the period. Dan Venz choreographed some terrific dance scenes and period dancing.
The seven-person cast was a powerful and impressive team of actors, managing their wonderful assortment of characters in Molloy’s life with passion, commitment and an extraordinary attention to detail. It is difficult to pick out just a few of the many characters but Karen Crone’s Mum, Leon McCain’s Mr Nelson and Jonathon, Johnny Balbuziente’s Brett and Andy, Mitchell Bourke’s Tom, Amy Ingram’s Morgan and Rhonda and Helen Cassidy’s Nicole and Trinity to name just a few, were real standouts.
The central character of Molloy was beautifully played by Conor Leach, who acted as narrator for the piece. It was a commanding performance. In the opening scene we see a certain confidence, some 20 years after leaving school. As he returns to 1999 and is back in Year 9, we see the gauche, unsure teenager, trying to find his way in the world, not sure what being gay means and perhaps thinking he might also be bisexual. He is both intimidated and frightened by his adversaries, with their bullying, name calling and physical attacks.
We see in his Molloy a vulnerable, soft-spoken, gentle person who recognises the bullies for what they are but seems powerless to stop their behaviour. At the same time, he is clearly an intelligent young man, creative and gifted. Curiously we see no reference to his future life as a journalist and writer, which surely was apparent as a teenager. The closest we get is his ability to run a fashion show.
Overall though, this was a fine production of an important issue that goes to the heart of who we are – whether the issue is about race, colour, gender or, in this case, sexual preference. The mostly adolescent audience on opening night was absolutely in tune with the work and recognised all too well the injustice. Highly vocal, they cheered, clapped and laughed as required. Alongside Molloy’s bravery in telling his story and shake & stir theatre co’s sensitively staged realisation, such audience support should go a long way towards creating a more inclusive and better-informed society.
Fourteen by Shannon Molloy
Adapted by shake & stir with Shannon Molloy
Brisbane Festival, shake & stir theatre co and Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Director: Nick Skubij
Creative Producer: Ross Balbuziente
Set Designer: Josh McIntosh
Costume Designer: Fabian Holford
Lighting Designer: Trent Suidgeest
Sound Designer: Guy Webster
Choreographer: Dan Venz
Fight Director: Tim Dashwood
Cast: Johnny Balbuziente, Mitchell Bourke, Leon Cain, Helen Cassidy, Karen Crone, Amy Ingra, Conor Leach
Fourteen plays until 17 September 2022, as part of the Brisbane Festival.