Theatre reviews: Crocodiles, Northcote Town Hall Arts Centre

Despite good performances and a worthy exploration of aged care, the play is not fulfilling in a dramatic sense.

Featured in the program for author Vidya Rajan’s new play Crocodiles is a five-paragraph Writer’s Message (as opposed to the Director’s Note). The message is a lengthy elocution on the current failings of our aged care sector, for both patients and workers alike. That Rajan spares not a single word, however, for the craft of creating theatricality is representative of a play that has plenty to say about the system that its characters inhabit, but which lacks any of the frisson that animates good drama.

Or good comedy, for that matter. Crocodiles is billed as a black comedy, but the laughs are frustratingly scant. The subject matter may not lend itself to waves of mirth – much of the play is centred on a precarious young aged care worker named Sandhya (Rachel Kamath), whose dynamic with an ill hospice resident named Helen (Marta Kaczmarek) and a forbidding friend named Neela (Shamita Siva) adds extra layers of nerviness onto what is already a tenuous life for her.

But then, isn’t the job of the comic playwright to locate and reveal the humour, the moments of levity? Crocodiles lacks an established atmosphere, giving every scene a feeling of weightlessness and, ultimately, unimportance.

The opening night performance as a whole was, it must be said, slightly off-kilter. Though the lighting was exceptionally conceived and in some moments a true joy to behold – there is something so satisfying about quality theatrical craftsmanship – it was poorly executed, spotlights moving into place too late, lighting transitions triggered too early. A repeated sizzling of microphones and inconsistent sound coverage was frustrating even for the show’s director who, sitting in front of me, sternly shook his head with each new crackle. Forgivable errors, but suggestive of the broader issue: though charming in moments, Crocodiles isn’t nearly developed enough to fully satisfy.

Standout performances from Kaczmarek and Emily Tomlins elevate material that, for the most part, creates characters who feel like half-baked, archetypal stand-ins for people Rajan may have known while working in the sector herself. Sandhya in particular has all the hallmarks of the replaceable and forgotten 21st century ‘precarity worker’: Maggi noodles for dinner, a succulent in a white ceramic pot from The Reject Shop, a nervous and somewhat internalising demeanour. ‘Sometimes,’ she says pointedly, ‘I feel if I wanted to disappear, I actually would be able to. Better than most people.’ But she has none of the charms or quirks we require to invest in a stage personage. And where her moments with Helen lightly sizzle with humour and intrigue, her interactions with Neela lack chemistry or substance, both actors straining to imbue their cardboard-frame characters with personality.

Rajan, though clearly opinionated on her subject matter, isn’t a skilled enough a dramatist to build the story to a moment of meaningful conflict or catharsis. Flashes of intrigue or lyricism aren’t developed into satisfying resolutions and, as a result, the whole show ends up feeling melodramatic and stagey. And when the narrative progresses into a quasi-litigious quarrel over culpability for a resident’s death, the wheels come off entirely.

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The parallels between aged care residents and those who care for them are apparent to anyone who’s spent more than 10 minutes in a loved one’s hospice bedroom. Somewhere in this world there is a satisfying play to be written; in other words, Crocodiles has all the raw material to succeed. But it’s material crudely handled, culminating in a frustratingly monotonous show that feels like a minor waste of major potential.

Crocodiles by Vidya Rajan
Presented by Darebin Arts Speakeasy and Elbow Room
Northcote Town Hall Arts Centre, Melbourne

Director: Marcel Dorney
Set and Costume Designer: Rachel Nankin
Lighting Designer: Kris Chainey
Composition: Saieesh Shanmugarajah
Sound Engineer: Chris Wenn
Assistant Director: Antoinette Tracy
Production and Stage Manager: Kaite Head
Cast: Rachel Kamath, Shamita Siva, Marta Kaczmarek, Emily Tomlins, Tom Dent
Tickets: $10–$38

Crocodiles will be performed until 4 June 2023.

Elroy Rosenberg is an art critic and journalist.