Theatre review: Tom at the Farm

Things turn scary in the dairy when a grieving lover meets a family who never knew he existed.

At its best, Canadian writer Michel Marc Bouchard’s tightly framed drama has the nerve-jangling edge of a low-budget movie thriller. Indeed, this Australian premiere production comes to us long after the play was adapted into a French-language movie in 2013.

Twenty-something fashion copywriter Tom is mourning his lover Guillame, killed in a traffic accident. He arrives on stage having travelled from their home in Montreal to rural Quebec for the funeral.

Tom has never been introduced to Guillame’s family. He’s never even been spoken of. Guillame’s sexuality was kept a closely guarded secret and Guillame’s mother Agatha (Di Adams) is grieving under the delusion that her son had a long-term girlfriend whose no-show at the funeral only adds to her distress.

Tom has convinced himself that this is the time to reveal all. How do we know? Because Bouchard has Tom speak all his internal deliberations throughout the play. But confronted with Agatha’s pain, he delays, obfuscates and meekly passes himself off as Guillame’s concerned co-worker.

But Guillame’s life was no secret to his older brother, Francis, a deeply conflicted man who has already resorted to extreme violence to keep his mother in blissful ignorance. 

A disturbed cat-and-mouse game begins with Francis verbally taunting and physically assaulting Tom. He beats him, ties him up and teaches him to become a dairyman (which Tom seems to enjoy). He also devises elaborate punishments and promises Tom a gruesome, untraceable death in the pit where dead cattle are dumped.

Blindsided at first, Tom proves to be masochistically resilient to Francis’ onslaughts. A sticky bonds develops between the two men – and between Tom and Agatha, who begin to act as mother and son.

Read: Theatre review: Jane Eyre

Produced by Sydney indie company Fixed Foot and directed by Danny Ball, this is a sharply paced, pleasingly intense staging supported by moody lighting (Kate Baldwin and Alice Stafford) and a spare, bare-boards set (a Kate Beere design) on which a yellow plastic bowl and a modern steam iron look like objects from an alien civilisation.

The acting is uniformly strong. Zoran Jevtic brings a feline quality to the role of Tom and navigates Bouchard’s tricky switching between spoken interior monologue and dialogue about as well as anyone could. That said, there are times when you crave a moment of unvoiced thought, of ambiguity, some space to speculate.

Rory O’Keeffe menaces effectively as Francis and the play’s violence is capably handled. Its mildly sensual aspects, likewise.

Di Adams is pitch perfect as Agatha, who perhaps knows more than Francis realises. Hannah Raven injects some jagged comedy into the proceedings with a somewhat startling late entrance.

It makes for a reasonably taut 90 minutes of theatre but one that sends you out with more questions. The play’s ending (almost an apotheosis) is made effective with a swell of sound (composed by Chrysoulla Markoulli) and light but what it means is anyone’s guess.

Tom at the Farm
By Michel Marc Bouchard
Kings Cross Theatre, Sydney

Director: Danny Ball
Designer: Kate Beere

Lighting Designers: Kate Baldwin and Alice Stafford
Composer and Sound Designer: Chrysoulla Markoulli
Dramaturg: Jessica Bell
Cast: Di Adams, Zoran Jevtic, Rory O’Keeffe and Hannah Raven

Tom at the Farm plays until 10 September 2022.

Acting Performing Arts Editor Jason Blake is a career arts writer, critic and editor. He studied theatre directing at the VCA and NIDA, served as arts editor for the Sydney City Hub, edited subscription TV guides and reviewed theatre for the Sydney Morning Herald from 2009-2017. He was co-founder of and recently publications manager for the Sydney Film Festival. He shares his home office with a possum.