In its Australian premiere, the newest iteration of Stalker: the Musical explores themes of love and fear in a nameless town under the control of an all-powerful Mayor. When a Stranger wanders into the lives of the townspeople, he introduces new ideas that completely change what they’ve always thought to be true.
There are two rules in the Town: no touching and everyone participates in stalking. In a loose metaphor for our use of social media, engaging in relationships at a distance and finding a sense of connection through displaying our mundanity to the world, this stalking is the only way these townspeople are able to connect with each other. The stalking tradition is a quirky addition to an otherwise conventional dystopian narrative construction. The Town was founded by the Mayor, secretly Mrs Pleasureberry (Michele Lansdown) for those who are fed-up with heartbreak and who need protection from the ups and downs of love. The problem is, if these people have never heard of love before, it doesn’t prevent them from feeling it. The Stranger (Peter Meredith) introduces the idea of love into Jay’s (Levi Burrows) life to explain his feelings for Ava (Emma Taviani), and confusion and confrontation ensue until Ava and Jay decide to leave the Town and try to make it in the real world.
The world building of this dystopia is done well if for the fact that many elements are familiar from stories like the Wizard of Oz or Big Fish, and it makes the plot fairly predictable. There’s also plenty of dialogue afforded to explain the specificities including the stalking, or consensual voyeurism, which detracts a bit from the songs. These are written fairly repetitively, adding little to the plot or character development, and follow the major conventions of familiar musical numbers. Stalker could be separated into two parts: before Jay and Ava leave and afterwards. Both half feature a lot of exposition including following Ava throughout her entire pregnancy. It could have benefited from tightening or compacting of key discoveries into more stream-lined scenes.
What really lets the production down is the premise. It doesn’t seem fathomable that a woman would found a cult-like community because of a fear of love or that a man would stumble upon this place and turn his heartbreak into a hunger for power and dominance over strangers. The initial spark of a community without a name for love is interesting but it needs a deeper and more nuanced support to maintain the idea throughout an entire production. What is really driving these characters? And, if it is fear, can we get some details?
Director Kaleigh Wilkie-Smith shapes this Town into a collection of caricatures which is entertaining but sometimes difficult to take seriously. Burrows’s Jay is sickly sweet and earnest to the effect of making himself appear immature and laughable next to his poised lover Ava. All of the characters in the Town are naive, but they’re not children. Roxie (Steph Edmonds) demonstrates some depth and spunk in her Harlequin-esque characterisation while Percy (Harrison Riley) isn’t shown to shine until the final scenes of the musical. Taviani as Ava is wonderful throughout with a grace and quiet anger to her that powers her character through some difficult decisions.
Other elements of the production seem applied rather than incorporated such as Zoe Ioannou’s choreography, which is well done and executed well but an exuberant fit for the more low-key songs. Wilkie-Smith’s set hit a nice balance between being interesting to look at and relevant to the production, creating an eerily familiar atmosphere with the decoupage 1950s advertising. The moveable set pieces were handy for creating a variety of locations but seemed more distracting and troublesome for the cast than they were worth. Similarly, the lighting design by James Wallis included moving spots and wonderful use of texture but often pre-empted the actor’s movements and lifted the facade of motivation theatre works so hard to maintain. That being said, the consistency in the overall production design and the use of separate colour schemes was clever and added to the distinction between worlds nicely.
Stalker is a new Australian work and it’s striving to do something else with the musical genre than what has come before. Not every element of this production succeeded but it was an entertaining story and is certainly different from other musicals on stage right now.
Stalker: the Musical is running at the Depot Theatre from September 21st – October 6th.