Walking into the intimate performance space of the bakery@1812, the audience is immediately transported to a seaside scene. Projections of waves gently rolling onto a sandy beach are projected onto the floor, merging into real sand. The detailed set, convened by John Mills, is superbly done and and creates an anticipation of what the program refers to as a “compassionate comedy”. The set is further enhanced by an excellent lighting and sound design by Robin Le Blond and Zina Carman.
Gulls tells the story of Bill – a grown man suffering from an acquired brain injury. After the death of his mother, Bill is now being cared for by his sister, Frances, who has decided to sell the family home for a seachange. Frances secures a job at the local library and an ageing neighbour, Molly, assists her in the daily care of Bill.
Bill has very limited communication skills but breaks the fourth wall to speak to the audience and reveal his inner thoughts and feelings.
Gulls was written by Melbourne actor and playwright Robert Hewett, in response to a NSW government inquiry into health services for the mentally disabled. Gulls was first performed by the MTC in 1983, earning a Green Room Award.
Through the course of the play the audience get not only an insight into the challenges of caring for a mentally disabled person, but the frustrations these individuals may also face when unable to communicate all their thoughts and needs. This frustration is further demonstrated through Bill’s discussion of his sexual desires and very adult thoughts, despite medical experts suggesting he has the mind of a young child.
Performances in the first act felt a little rushed, but improved in the second half and will get better as cast settle into their roles.
Paul Wanis gives a solid performance as Bill and delivers a convincing portrayal of this brain-injured man.
Claire Dempsey plays his sister Frances and gives a strong performance of a sister willing to give up the life she had in order to care for her brother.
Susie Sparkes plays Molly, the somewhat nosey but well-meaning neighbour who assists in the care of Bill. Sparkes is delightful in the role and manages to bring some appropriate comic relief to what is actually quite a dark story.
Andrew McIver is Dan and provides the connection to Bill’s past. Dan comes to visit from time to time, adding another layer of complexity to the storyline.
The two remaining cast members puppeteer seagulls. Kendall Brown and Maia Tilley were in action on the night of this review. Clever costume design (Christine Hibberd) extend these two performers into gulls and not simply puppeteers, conveying a surprising level of emotion as they moved around the stage.
It all makes for a compelling and confronting drama, but anyone anticipating a “compassionate comedy” may be in for a shock. While there were laughs along the way, this a dark and complex story, that raises more questions than it provides answers. Gulls certainly highlights the challenges facing the disabled, but the final confronting scene confuses the intent of the author.
Gulls was first performed in 1983, but our world has changed since then. With assisted dying becoming legal in Victoria from next year, and stories are emerging from other parts of the world where severely disabled people are being “euthanised”, the final dramatic end of Gulls is perhaps much more confronting than it had intended to be when first written?
Is the take-home message for audiences that disabled people have thoughts and feelings like the rest of us and deserve our love and respect? Or is the moral of the story that carers would be better off if their disabled family member was dead?
Discussions amongst audience members following the show confirmed their confusion – expecting a “compassionate comedy” they were delivered something very different. Something much heavier and darker – and unresolved.
Gulls is a thought-provoking work that will challenge but not necessarily “entertain”.
Gulls is now playing at the 1812 Theatre. www.1812theatre.com.au