Theatre review: Orphans, TheatreiNQ and Stacks On Theatre

Power, precision and damned good theatre.

To say I was blown away by one of the most powerful and emotionally true performances I have seen in many years is an understatement.

For more than ten years I have seen and been reviewing the work of TheatreiNQ, a regionally-based company whose work (until now) has rarely been seen outside North Queensland. Every production this company undertakes seems to surpass the one prior, as this amazing (and still unfunded) company continues to innovate, grow and – put simply – produce damned good theatre.

And that is precisely what Orphans is – in every way possible. It is a work that unsettles, challenges and shakes us to our deepest roots. But why?  And – more importantly – how?

From the pen of British playwright Dennis Kelly, this 2009 work tackles the subject of violence in contemporary society – a potentially confronting theme. Indirectly, it also asks: have we been so continually assailed with graphic images of violence in film (and even in news bulletins) that we have become too tolerant and immune to it? And more precisely, how would we confront violence if it entered our lives? How would we react? What would it make us do?

Orphans places these concepts squarely in front of us for an intense two-hour production that (in what can possibly be described as Chekhovian fashion) does not have a single act of violence shown on stage. It also proves that the power of suggestion can be a great deal more threatening than the depiction of reality.

Read: What regional theatre needs to thrive

Of course, the power of this message through a play will depend largely on the manner in which it is tackled – and in this area the production is faultless. Under the customary meticulous direction of Terri Brabon, there are three precise performances from the three actors: Brittany Santariga, James Thomasson and Lachlan Stevenson. Their work – individually and as an ensemble – places them on such an equal footing that it is difficult to separate them. They deliver emotional journeys united by an energy, concentration and precision that takes this performance (and consequently the play) to a completely new level.

They draw us into the play with a resonant premise – a young couple have packed their child off to a grandparent for the night and they are having a quiet evening in to celebrate the pregnancy of their second child. The woman’s brother bursts into the flat. He is covered in blood and claims to have found a young lad injured on the street. But all is not what it seems…

What ensues has you reeling, disturbed, confused and perhaps even angry. It is guaranteed to have you asking a great many questions of yourself long after you have left the theatre. It is also one of the most potent examples of theatrical power and precision I have seen in many years.

I have been privileged to watch with great interest the development of these three actors over the years. All three are a product of TheatreiNQ. They took part in the company’s innovative ten-year-old training program, The Bridge Project. This is a unique place-and-train model which develops emerging professionals and prepares regional talent for highly competitive tertiary education, which the three completed at WAAPA. Since then this trio has been consistently returning to Townsville to appear as guest professionals in a range of productions.

Read: Festival review: Mona Foma, Hobart

The effects of COVID have had far-reaching effects on the arts community – probably more than we will ever know – and this production is a direct response to creating opportunities for actors in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Rather than waiting around for professional employment opportunities to be revived, TheatreiNQ artistic director Terri Brabon has collaborated with the trio (collectively known as Stacks On Theatre) to create an opportunity which means that theatre work continues. It also means that this quality work created in regional North Queensland can subsequently be seen in Sydney following its Townsville season.

This is a provocative work on so many levels, but in every way the challenges have been met – and surpassed. From the premise of finding an opportunity to create work, a good play has been brought to life through the collaboration of an astonishing and consistent director and three extraordinary actors, supported by a committed company.

What is even more admirable is that this can be interpreted as the direct result of the investment that Terri Brabon and Brendan O’Connor have made into creating an artist-driven theatre company which is different, responsive and innovative.

This production personifies the realisation of a dream to create a company and a group of theatre people to defy the myth that good quality theatre can come only from urban companies. It is also what makes TheatreiNQ a top-notch regional company.  

A co-production between TheatreiNQ and Stacks On Theatre
By Dennis Kelly

Directed by Terri Brabon

Townsville season: 9-20 February 2022
Clubhouse Theatre, Hyde Park

Sydney season: 18-27 March 2022
Flow Studios, Campbelltown
Bookings open 16 February 2022

Trevor Keeling has been involved in the arts and creative industries for 40 years in Australia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. He has been an actor, theatre director, journalist and critic, publisher, broadcaster, music festival director, event manager and arts administrator. Since coming to Australia in 1991, he appeared in numerous productions in Adelaide, and was Festival Director of the Glenelg Jazz Festival for six years. He was General Manager of Dancenorth in Townsville (2005-2006 and 2011-2014) and for three years was CEO of Mirndiyan Gunana Aboriginal Corporation, which included managing the world-renowned Indigenous Mornington Island Dancers. He has worked in urban, regional and remote environments in Australia and has a particular focus on regional arts and the connection to community.