Life can come at you fast, throwing up all sorts of obstacles that you weren’t expecting or don’t know how to overcome. For the teachers and students at this high school, they couldn’t have predicted how much of their lives would change over the next four years.
With a cast largely made up of new actors and recent theatre graduates, the performances were spry and appropriately youthful for the high school setting of Malcolm Frawley’s Tumbling Dice. The emotions of teenage years, especially the transition into early adulthood, run high and these were well-portrayed by the ensemble, especially in Silas’s (Alexander Smith) devastation at the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994 and Dean’s (Tom Loveluck) endless optimism that his cheeky grin will get him anything he wants. Frawley’s direction was often loose and casual, including in the set design that used a teacher’s desk and tables and chairs to switch around the otherwise empty stage. This approach was most effective in characterisations like Margot (Pollyanna Nowicki), the slightly eccentric gossip on the teaching staff, who added a genuine ease to every scene she was in and Josie Waller who played Antonia as the Aussie campus queen, the prettiest, the nicest, the one most likely to succeed.
Contrastingly, the structure of the script, also written by Frawley, left something to be desired in terms of ease and balance. Written as short snippets of conversation between the four students and three teachers over the course of four years, from the students’ senior year into their 20s, the dialogue was snappy and often unnaturally brusque, especially in the revelation of the characters’ difficult experiences. While the premise of the storyline was the randomness of fortune and misfortune, the majority of the characters were dealt a series of horrendous blows that stretched the bounds of belief and gave the script an overall tone of pity porn. For example, over the course of the script there were five deaths revealed in the lives of the characters with two occurring in the four years spanning 1994-1998, one each by murder, suicide, plane crash, car accident, and illness, and another traumatic brain tumour that left a character permanently disabled and seemingly abandoned by his wife. This isn’t to say that great tragedies are not possible or that they don’t congregate together, but with a script pared down to its barest bones, the characters and their narratives were built almost entirely of the people who had abused them, family members who died, their contemplation of suicide, and their personal or professional failures.
However, other than a handful of unnecessary slurs and one feeding into an outdated joke stereotyping Romani people as human traffickers, there was humour in Tumbling Dice. After a few stilted opening scenes of inappropriately sexualised conversations between teachers and students, the actors warmed to their roles and offered some capable performances with relaxed physicality and an air of spontaneity. Especially in the school yard scenes, there was potential for a real Puberty Blues-esque dynamic between the weirdos Eve (Meg Grange) and Silas and the popular kids Dean and Antonia which would have also allowed for the grittier elements of Frawley’s writing such as Eve’s use of her sexuality to cope with the trauma of her mother’s murder by her brother or Antonia’s very 90s marriage to her teacher Toby (Angus Temrak) and his misogynistic banter with school counsellor Cris (Diego Ferreira).
So often life is an absolute crapshoot and the characters’ lives in Tumbling Dice were certainly rich with random peaks and troughs. With greater time spent within the minutiae of their circumstances and further development of their narrative arcs, they may become more fully realised as complicated, nuanced people commanding of attention and emotional intrigue.
Tumbling Dice is running at Chippen St Theatre from June 15th – 25th
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