Theatre review: Jacky, Arts Centre Melbourne

Some uncomfortable viewing in this masterful play about sex, race and brotherhood.

Jacky is a rare and beautiful thing: a work of theatre that manages to feel vitally important and current while being enormously entertaining, hilarious and heartbreaking. 

On the face of it, this Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) production is a story about one young Aboriginal man’s search for identity and purpose in contemporary Australia – but at its most searing heart, it is about the ongoing legacy of colonialism, forcing us to reckon with the notion of colonisation in the present tense and what real reconciliation may mean in this country.

The titular character Jacky (brilliantly played by Guy Simon) is a young Aboriginal man from somewhere up north. He’s making things work in the city by cobbling together a portfolio of odd jobs – performing cultural dances, office jobs, sex work. He dreams of owning an apartment.

Jacky has a sponsor of sorts in Linda (the marvellous MTC veteran Alison Whyte) – an ambitious do-gooder white lady, constantly in or out of a board meeting. Linda runs a program called Segue that helps link up young people in need with pathways to work and study. She offers to help Jacky secure the permanent work he needs to get a loan for an apartment – she has funding for a placement specifically for a First Nations person, so really, he’d be doing her a favour. Win-win, as she says. 

Meanwhile, Jacky’s brother Keith (a star turn from MTC newbie Ngali Shaw) has just shown up at Jacky’s place. Keith, on the lookout for work, is impressed by Jacky’s nice apartment, and has decided he’s going to shack up with his brother while he works out his next steps. 

Keith’s enormous personality fills up a room. Shaw is so perfectly cast here: he struts around with his cheeky grin, firing wisecracks on the regular. He’s likeable, funny, straight-talking – but he’s a bit too much for Jacky, who has a neatly organised apartment life, and isn’t ready for the mess of pizza boxes and Xbox noise that Keith brings with him. Jacky stresses out at Keith’s lack of work ethic: things are different here in the city, Keith will need to get his resumé out to prospective employers, get his act together, stop cluttering up Jacky’s couch.

The four-person cast is completed by the wonderful Greg Stone, as Glenn, a vintage record salesman and one of Jacky’s clients, who is separated from his wife and only now learning to discover what he truly desires. He and Jacky fall into a regular arrangement – a direct debit dalliance. 

The set is divided into static sections, enabling immediate shifts between scenes without the disruption of involved set changes. On the left: a grey hotel bed that Glenn and Jacky share for their regular ‘full boyfriend service’ meet-ups. On the right: a nondescript grey couch, a tiny kitchen, an appropriately humdrum city apartment, as far away from Jacky’s previous life on the ‘mish’ (mission) as he can find. Pub meet-ups happen at the bar table and stools that are set centre stage. 

Jacky is from – I was going to say ‘emerging writer’, but with this work I feel he has well and truly emerged – Declan Furber Gillick. The play has been five years in the making, made possible by the support and funding of the MTC’s Next Stage Writers’ program, which provides residency and development support. This is an all-too important element in the development of really great theatre, yet an all-too often missing part of the equation, particularly in this country. 

The writing is sparky, funny, the characters perfectly pitched against each other – each set on a collision course where their objectives and mettle will be tested. At the heart of this are two worldviews and ways of being: a First Nations cultural understanding of Country, family and community, and a Western, colonial way of seeing the world and the people in it. And within these opposing perspectives, represented and embodied in various ways by the characters of Linda and Glenn and Keith, is Jacky and his desire to find something for himself. To fit in. 

This play and its themes will properly hit you in the guts: the insidiousness of racism, the Western capitalist use-and-abuse mentality that pervades even the most do-gooding of us, and the vital importance of family, culture and community without which we – whatever our background – have nothing.

The acting is incredible. There are some really hard moments in this play (I’m talking audience gasping, holding breath, squirming in chairs) and each of the actors completely inhabits their character, even the very darkest and ugliest elements, without any part of the performance feeling forced. In one scene, Glenn’s deep-seated racism rears its head in the most intimate of contexts. It is difficult to watch – truly shocking – but the acting is unflinchingly brilliant from both actors. 

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But this is also a really funny play, the laughs coming easily and regularly. In its adept handling of light and shade, it’s reminiscent of Melissa Lucashenko’s Miles Franklin-winning novel Too Much Lip, a story that Furber Gillick is also adapting for television. 

Jacky is a play that should be seen by everyone in Australia. Sadly, this won’t happen in this premiere run of the play in Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Theatre, but I’ve no doubt it will tour around the country, and we’ll be talking about it for the next 30 years and beyond.  

At the end of the performance I saw – aptly scheduled to coincide with the first day of National Reconciliation Week – the audience couldn’t jump out of their chairs fast enough to give a rapturous standing ovation. Jacky is something incredibly special, and my strong recommendation is to book a ticket before you miss out. 

Jacky by Declan Furber Gillick
An MTC NEXT STAGE Writers’ Program production

Arts Centre Melbourne
Director/Dramaturg: Mark Wilson

Set Designer: Christina Smith
Costume Designer: Emily Barrie
Lighting Designer: Matt Scott
Sound Designer: James Henry
Intimacy Coordinator: Amy Cater
Voice and Text Coach: Matt Furlani
Assistant Director: Joel Bray
Dramaturg: Jennifer Medway
Cast: Guy Simon, Ngali Shaw, Alison Whyte, Greg Stone

Tickets: from $29

Jacky will be performed until 24 June 2023. 

Kate Mulqueen is an actor, writer, musician and theatre-maker based in Naarm (Melbourne). Instagram: @picklingspirits Facebook: @katemulq Twitter: @katemulqueen