Theatre Review: Diving for Pearls creatively captures the Wollongong coast (Griffin Theatre until 28th October)

Over thirty years old, Diving for Pearls still has resonance for today’s audience. It paints a bleak picture of the future of manufacturing in Australia, which has been on a steady decline since the 1980s and 90s, when this play was written. It is a very Australian story, and the images the text and set conjure of the Wollongong coast are bang on. But despite a talented cast and crew, this production somehow just misses the mark.

In Diving for Pearls, written by Katherine Thomson, the action primarily centres around Den, who has been employed at the Wollongong steel works for his entire adult life. Den seems unable to escape the past, especially when the news that the mine could be saved is delivered by none other than his old friend and brother-in-law, Ron. We watch as Den rekindles his romance with Barbara, a feisty middle-aged woman who is determined to escape the boarding house and sewing factory job that constitute her life.

Buoyed by his new love and Ron’s promises of a bright future, Den begins to dream a little bigger for himself. But if history has taught us anything, we all know where this story is headed. That is, of course, until Barbara’s daughter, Verge, arrives on the scene.

The biggest success in this production is also one of its flaws. The set, while creative and beautiful to look at, does not quite satisfy the play’s numerous location requirements. Inspired by the playwright’s instructions that the set should be ‘abstract’ and ‘multifunctional’, James Browne has created a sculptural delight.

Taking its cues primarily from the steel industry, the sides of the stage are fitted with a collection of rusted pipes and plates, arranged to evoke the town’s coastal cliffs. Atop the pipes are tiny houses from a toy train set, pointing to both Den’s former hobby and the primary output of the steelworks. In the centre of the stage is a sloping grass platform, which shortly after the first scene, is cranked upwards to reveal more of the steel. The effect closes in the stage and perfectly suits the scenes in the steelworks.

But the dark backdrop is less effective for the interior of Den’s home, and the toy train set sitting on the floor at its base seems very precarious. One wrong move and the tiny town will be crushed. Perhaps that’s the point.

Barbara’s room in the boarding house is tucked on the landing where the audience enters the theatre, making it difficult for those not seated in the front rows to catch all the action there. While different lighting states, design by Benjamin Brockman, have been employed to help distinguish the various settings, there’s just too much demanded from a small space to make the set design truly effective. And some of the proceeding scenes are distractingly cued early, so you’re not always sure where to look.

The musical compositions by Max Lambert and Roger Lock take their cues beautifully from the script, and the use of the Wollongong Brass Band is a great touch, but for some reason the music doesn’t quite gel with the action. A collection of modern Australian ‘anthems’ may have been more effective in evoking the nostalgia.

In the role of Den, Steve Rodgers is perfectly cast. He genuinely looks the part of a life-long blue collar worker who has ambitions of a quiet, safe life. His Toastmasters soliloquys are a real highlight.

I am usually a big fan of Ursula Yovich, who plays Barbara, but in this role she was a little too ‘shouty’. Her dialogue felt a little disconnected, like it didn’t quite suit her. And physically there wasn’t an obvious transformation as she progressed through her deportment training.

As Ron, Jack Finsterer has the company man down pat. He brings a politician’s bearing and bluster to the role. In comparison, Michelle Deake is a little too pompish as Barbara’s polished sister. She is very funny, but pushes a little too close to caricature.

Ebony Vagulans is charged with playing the challenging role of Verge, who suffers from an unnamed mental and physical disability. While physically she delivers, there is very little affliction apparent in her vocals, which appears at odds with the character the dialogue implies.

In his director’s note, Darren Yap advises us to remember and cherish the past, but not to live in it. He has certainly picked up on one of the key themes Thomson points to in Diving for Pearls. Throughout the play, Den is drawn back to his past – by his former lover, by his old friend, by the family home still littered with artefacts from his childhood. When surrounded by fond memories, how does one motivate themselves to push forward into the scary, unknown future? It’s a theme that is still very relevant to today’s audiences and it makes sense that Griffin would want to revive this tale in 2017.

That said, there’s something missing from this production. Overall the cast handles the abstract staging well, but, aside from Rodgers, they don’t quite manage to connect with the heart of the play. Like a steel gate whose arms are just out of alignment, this production is just a little short of ‘right’.

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Griffin Theatre Company’s Diving for Pearls is playing at SBW Stables Theatre in Sydney until 28th October. For tickets, go here.

The reviewer attended opening night, Wednesday 13th September.

Photo credit Brett Boardman

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