Ageing is a rocky road, whether you’re a teen entering adulthood with a world opening up that you hardly understand, or you’re on the other end of the spectrum and you feel the world closing in around you with each encroaching year. Grandmother and granddaughter Mudge both want to know what life has in store for them but they didn’t realise they’d have to go to Berlin to find out.
Tracey (Milena Barraclough Nesic) is a typical Australian 18-year-old who has finished her high school exams and just wants to be out in the world dancing until she drops. She can’t wait to get away from her loving but familiar mother (Bryn Chapman Parish) and grandmother Mabel (Valerie Bader) while on her worldwide adventure but when a sudden change of plans takes her away from Africa to Berlin such that she misses her flight home, her spontaneity doesn’t land quite the same way at home. Mabel, using her grandmother intuition, decides to find Tracey herself and follows her footsteps to Berlin where she discovers a version of herself that she thought was lost forever. Rather than the younger Mudge returning to Australia a world-weary woman, she leaves her grandmother behind and learns that you don’t have to stop living until you do.
This restaging of Lachlan Philpott’s 2014 script featured some minor updating to include COVID lockdowns and more contemporary references but the heart of the multigenerational storyline remained. The direction by Fraser Corfield was vibrant and dynamic, bringing the psychologies of both Tracey and Mabel alive on stage through colour, sound, and movement. With plenty of scenes taking place in clubs, the lighting design by Jasmine Rizk with combinations of flashing lights, strip lighting, and spotlights in a myriad of colours became a major focus in conversation with the sound design produced by Jonny Seymour with guest DJ Venus Guy Trap. A core theme for both Tracey and Mabel was the marriage between music and movement present in dancing, giving your body over to sound and feelings its vibrations through you, which chimed with Philpott’s script in the internal rhymes that added rhythm to the dialogue and monologues much like lyrics in music. While there were times when the rhyming felt gimmicky and unnatural, especially as the audience was easing into the beginning of the production, but otherwise it was largely organic and added a subtle, playful structure to the script.
The set design by Melanie Liertz was adaptable and visually interesting in its transition from Mabel’s Blacktown living room to a village in Kenya to the industrial hangouts of artists in Berlin. Incorporating metal scaffolding, large drums, and moveable staircases, the set was both aesthetically engaged with the lighting design for ever-changing uses of light and space to more practically considered in its ability to hide the ensemble actors Parish, Darius Williams, and Masego Pitso who played all the additional characters around Tracey and Mabel with a multitude of costume changes.
These performances were particularly impressive for the ease with which Parish, Williams, and Pitso filled out the world on the stage with sound effects, convenient plot devices, and a warm cast of characters to shape Tracey and Mabel’s experiences. Williams received early laughs for his “here for a good time, not a long time” persona prior to Tracey’s overseas flight but he proved to have some charm as a Kenyan taxi driver named Lucky and an internationally sensational DJ named Hank. Parish stood out for his uppity, controlling rendition of Tracey’s mother but he equally demonstrated great versatility in characters ranging from a vegan Berlin artist to a scolding Aldi security guard. Pitso provided comfort as Tracey’s friend in Berlin but her vocals singing, “You can get lost but don’t lose yourself”, during scene transitions were haunting with an edge of supernatural distortion that informed the entire production.
The central link of Tracey and Mabel’s relationship upon which the entire production and their mirrored trajectories hung was a strong one played with a balance of familiarity and unpredictability. Nesic’s portrayal of Tracey was recognisable both for her doe-eyed youth but also for her sharp tongue and reckless cruelty. Mabel’s narrative arc, on the other hand, was much like a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story about growing in confidence and coming into oneself, where she defied the typical social limitations of her age to find joy again. Bader played her with strength, occasionally rocked by internalised doubt, but she was graceful and humble with great integrity making for an engaging and nuanced character overall. Together, the two Mudge women walked the line between allies and rivals for an interesting and rarely explored family dynamic.
So much media is focused on the beginnings of early adulthood with little or no attention paid to the equally messy transitions of later life, especially the new beginnings, starting overs, or first times of older people. M.ROCK, poetically produced by Australian Theatre for Young People, brings together generations on shared ground of learning to see yourself in a different light, a different place, another life for a wholesome, uplifting story of ageing from both ends of adulthood.
M.ROCK is running at the Rebel Theatre from June 24th – July 17th
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