In the Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir about the sudden death of her husband, Joan Didion writes, “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” Grief is figured as a foreign, unknowable place that welcomes unsuspecting grievers like Frank after tragedy. Frank isn’t sure how he got here or how to get home but he’s slowly piecing together the puzzle of his grief.
Gods and Little Fishes by Richard Sydenham and Jamie Oxenbould won the 2020 Silver Gull Play Award after New Theatre took on the award from subtlenuance theatre. The script is loosely based on the kidnapping, ransom, and murder of Graeme Thorne in Sydney in 1960. Graeme’s parents Bazil and Freda won first prize in the Opera House Lottery and had their names published in all the papers, making them local celebrities and targets for thieves. Like the disappearance of the Beaumont children in 1966, the kidnapping and murder of Graeme Thorne shocked Australia as an unexpectedly gruesome crime perpetrated on a child. Sydenham and Oxenbould reframe this infamous story through the lens of the grieving father to explore the disorientating, unimaginable, and unreal journey through grief.
Frank (Oxenbould) is a travelling salesman on a business trip that seems to have been waylaid when he wakes up on a ship aimlessly afloat at sea. The ship’s passengers Pepe the Clown (Eloise Snape), Guy the Strongman (Arky Michael), and Andy the Polar Bear (Andy McDonell) aren’t particularly troubled by their predicament as they are performers who see every adventure as material for their next show. While Frank slowly unravels the clues about the ship, his new companions, and the monster he sees stalking them, his wife Kate (Katie Fitchett) and son Jeffrey (Sarah-Jane Kelly) are seen waiting for him at home with their own menacing figure (Richard Ross) lurking just out of sight.
As the director, Sydenham imagined the story of Frank and his family with the qualities of a fable with archetypal characters, a fluid sense of time, and a wholesome, emotional reveal at the end. As performers, Pepe, Guy, and Andy had a twee perspective on the magic of theatre that compounded their characterisation as all-knowing guides for the kind of obvious story-telling mode best suited to children or younger audiences. This mode additionally came through in the set design by Hannah Tayler which used a naive aesthetic to construct cardboard clouds and a ramshackle vintage ship. Fitchett’s costume design placed the performers in classic Victorian-era garb from a circus or sideshow with Pepe clothed like Raggedy Andy, Guy in the customary striped shorts of a strongman, and Andy’s polar bear completed with a neck ruff. This sense of being in an imagined, child-like past amplified the wonder and playfulness of the script while other elements grounded the emotional arc in a more adult understanding. Lloyd Allison-Young’s sound design of rhythmic waves and Grant Fraser’s lighting design with cracking lightening, blood red scares, and warm lamplight glow expanded the world of the ship and incorporated Frank’s imaginings into the reality of his family’s life at home in 1960s Sydney.
Oxenbould gave an ingenuous and unsuspecting performance as the disorientated and distressed Frank which worked well, particularly alongside McDonell’s acquiescence. Their push-and-pull relationship formed a mentor/student dynamic that was equally frustrating and productive for Frank’s narrative. Michael and Snape had a bright, bickering banter that perhaps hinted at the unsavoury underbelly of touring performers like carnies which added a sharpness to the dreamy ship scenes. Ross additionally stood out for his sinister presence while circling Frank and his family. While a character of few words, Ross infused each of his scenes with a bloodless menace that provided a large part of the production’s real-world storyline and emotional arc.
Sydenham and Oxenbould’s new script is an inventive and imaginative interpretation of a key story in Australia’s imaginary that has been adapted for a wider exploration of a parent’s fear and grief. While Frank’s ocean journey formed the majority of the plot, these scenes became prolonged and repetitive which meant his return to reality and reconnection with his wife felt rushed and under-utilised as an opportunity to expand past metaphor and into heartbroken reality. Greater attention paid to the world outside Frank’s head might have allowed for more sophisticated representation of the relationship between Frank and his family and a more compelling contrast between the world of the ship and that of his home. But the analogy of Frank’s journey through grief is apt and will be recognisable for anyone who’s found themselves afloat on waves of grief.
Gods and Little Fishes is running at New Theatre from May 31st – June 25th
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