Theatre review: On the Beach, Roslyn Packer Theatre

The classic 1957 novel about a post-apocalyptic vision is granted a powerful theatrical adaptation.

In the show notes for this production, it is noted that recent global events such as tensions over the occupation of Ukrainian territory and US trepidation over increasing aggression within the Sinosphere reverberate within the text of Nevil Shute’s book. The 60 years since his post-apocalyptic novel was first published have presented us with an increasingly scrambled, vulgarised global political imagination that pretends to be disciplined and choreographed. Conceptually, the novel is hauntingly prescient, but lacking in any kind of narrative momentum.

Tommy Murphy, the acclaimed writer of Holding the Man, has achieved something extraordinary. He, and director Kip Williams, have taken a fairly drab and lifeless source novel, and infused it with an incredible amount of emotion and humanity without taking away from the vast, global scale of events. On the Beach, a parable for the age of AUKUS, sees Melbourne as one of the final outposts of civilisation after a nuclear catastrophe has destroyed the northern hemisphere. It is on the city streets, and in farmland fields, where a group of friends struggle to reconcile with the inevitable disaster. Some face it head-on, while others pretend that everything will soon be all right.

Williams constructs many striking images throughout the piece. He is able to say so much despite only using a handful of props per scene while embracing every part of the stage, commanding light, haze and imagination to the point where a simple horizontal wooden elevation can be a verandah, a submarine or a pier where our characters take a relaxing dip in the ocean. With Williams at the helm, a simple shift of light can take a scene from being funny and relatable, to eerie and surreal. It is safe to say that we are watching the work of genius.

Adding to the evocative style on display are the costumes by Mel Page. From fun bathing suits to military uniforms and stunning dresses, Page’s designs are appropriately lived-in and authentic. A specific costume reveal (you’ll know it when you see it) cements this play as one of the most magical and evocative theatre pieces of the year. It will take your breath away.

Contessa Treffone, playing the role of Moira, was a clear audience favourite, as her performance garnered many big laughs, yet she effortlessly steps into the dramatic when required. Michelle Lim Davidson also delivers a stellar performance as Mary. Her portrayal of an authentic, down-to-earth housewife is immediately charming, and later easy to empathise with as she slides into the paranoid, heart-breaking closing stages of the second act. 

Read: Festival review: Illuminate Adelaide, from Arborialis to City Lights

On the Beach is Australian theatre at its finest. It is an innovative production that will overwhelm your senses with striking beauty and genuine humanity.

On the Beach
Sydney Theatre Company
Writer: Tommy Murphy (after Nevil Shute)
Director: Kip Williams
Set Designer: Michael Hankin
Costume Designer: Mel Page
Lighting Designer: Damien Cooper
Composer: Grace Ferguson

Dramaturg: Ruth Little
Sound Designer: Jessica Dunn
Intimacy Coordinator: Chloë Dallimore
Fight and Movement Director: Nigel Poulton

Cast: Matthew Backer, Tony Cogin, Michelle Lim Davidson, Emma Diaz, Vanessa Downing, Tai Hara, Genevieve Lee, Ben O’Toole, Contessa Treffone, Kiki Wales, Elijah Williams, Alan Zhu
Tickets: from $117 

On the Beach will be performed until 12 August 2023.

Matthew Collins is a writer, director, and occasional actor whose works extends through literature, theatre, film, politics, gallery work, and critical writings. He is currently studying a Master of Curating and Cultural Leadership at UNSW. You can find him on Instagram @thematthewcollins