“This isn’t supposed to happen in Australia. This only happens in America.”

A distraught Brit says this, trying to fathom the nightmare unfolding at Heartmore High. She’s with four others: Luke, Michael, Rose and Emily. There’s blood all over Rose’s hands and dress (whose blood, we don’t know), Luke’s face is tear-streaked despite his upbeat demeanour and Emily, like an uptight Lady Macbeth, can’t stop washing her hands with sanitiser. They’re friends, enemies and lovers, and they’re holed up in Heartmore’s drama room, hiding from a student stalking the grounds with a gun. They’re waiting for the end. Whatever that may be.

And Now We Wait is Stephanie Clark’s piece of harrowing realist theatre with the setup of a TV bottle episode. It was a difficult job for director Julia Lambert and stage manager Steph Young, as the stage is cornered by the audience’s “L” shaped seating. Actors enter through the doors but they never leave. We see them at all times, dealing with the claustrophobia and the horrible fear of what’s to come, doing everything they can not to turn on each other and give themselves away.

In response to Brit’s claim about Australia, Luke mentions the Port Arthur massacre of 1996, when Martin Bryant shot and killed 35 people at the former prison colony. After the tragedy, John Howard lobbied hard for strict gun laws, resulting in regulations that do not allow the possession of guns for self-defence, bans on automatic weapons and required registrations for all firearms, with strict penalties for disobeying these laws. As a result 70,000 plus protestors marched the streets of Melbourne, but Howard stuck to his (figurative) guns. He even attended a Melbourne protest donning a bullet-proof vest, facing off against one of the angriest crowds any of our Prime Ministers would ever have to.

The gun laws worked. Since 1996 gun homicides have dropped by 60%. In comparison, America has 64 times more gun deaths per year and only 14 times Australia’s population. Anti-gun protestors in America use Australia as examples of why the regulation of firearms works. Every time these terrible shootings happen, in Columbine, Virginia Tech or the Colorado movie theatre, a bellowing response comes from protestors, only to be beaten down by the NRA and those who cite the American constitution.

Clark’s script follows the emotional journey of its characters and allows the history and politics to lean heavily on its audience. With only three brief cutaways to a TV news reporter (played by Maddi Alexander) and a minimal set, this is a character driven piece.
Playing in the Northcote Uniting Church, the open space gave an ominous feel to the piece. Acoustic sound effects rang out and echoed in the church, as sound and tech engineer Robert Loyd thumped the stage behind us, creating frightening gunshot effects.

Packed boxes were stacked all along the walls and a clothes rack of drama uniforms acted as a hiding place, comedic props and barrier between the characters at all different points in the play.

The actors took to breaking the silence by throwing chairs shoving tables against walls to protect themselves. These loud, jarring sounds were effective in creating an urgency and jangling the nerves, though the loud clattering became less effective as the play went on. Still, at 90 minutes it was incredible to watch the performers play with the setting, finding different ways to engage with it and bring Heartmore’s drama room to life. Car horns outside and general street noise would startle the actors and they jerked their heads up in fear. Even coughs in the audience or chair scrapes were brought into the reality of the play. It created this unique experience of being a part of the terror, as if we too had to stay quiet and hidden.

The performers did a tremendous job in such exhaustive roles. Stephanie Clark enters first. Trying and failing to light a cigarette with bloody fingers, her hands shake and she can’t catch her breath. Clark gives a nuanced and dedicated performance as Rose, the one who Tim (the shooter) let escape after he killed someone in front of her. Rose has been up close to the horror and she carries this throughout her performance to great effect.

She has a history with Emily, a character positioned as Rose’s opposite. Emily’s dress is pristine and ironed, her hair made up and complexion controlled. She sits down to do her biology homework and she simply doesn’t want to acknowledge what’s going on. Despite the school’s transformation, she still acts as though she’s a student. And Now… is a study in how we deal with disasters.

Luke (Kyle Wright), wearing shorts, skate shoes and Globe socks pulled up high, skilfully adds humour to the heavy situation. He’s not quite comic relief, but we glean from the character that he’s restless and doesn’t like silence. Luke takes pretends to shoot arrows with a coat-hanger and dresses himself in a gold cape, doing poses and impersonations. His humour is juvenile and childish but the way Wright plays it is a mature exploration of humour as a defence mechanism. When the situation calls for it, Wright can switch to the opposite end of the spectrum and display an electrifying, dramatic performance.

Daniel Warenycia and Emily Legg play Michael and Brit, a couple whose relationship problems gradually come to surface. Their characters seem considerably less complex than Kyle, Rose and Emily, though Warenycia does a good job as a character who believes he should be in charge of the situation, the hero. Legg is always acting, letting flickers of fear and timidity flash across her face as she hugs the wall, rarely getting involved in the drama.

And Now We Wait is an intelligent, carefully considered and wonderfully tense piece of theatre. When it finished I suddenly relaxed all my muscles, realising I’d been tensing my torso and fists during the ordeal.

It suffers from overlong pauses and a few missed opportunities with sound effects, but these shortcomings show that this is a group of young, talented performers to watch for. For something different and undoubtedly brave at this year’s Fringe, check out Clark and co.’s high-school-in-hell scenario.