Broken River review by Sue-Anne Hess

***.5 stars

power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” – Lord Acton 1887.

Have you ever walked into a room where people are talking, and as you enter, the conversation suddenly stops? You have the awkward feeling that you have walked into something that you weren’t meant to, and now you can either try and figure out what’s going on, or flee. There’s something about Broken River that gives this feeling. Lauded as an “expose of the dark heart of evil lying beneath the surface of crime and its’ policing in present-day Melbourne”, audience members can prepare themselves to be uncomfortable.

And where better to stage it, than La Mama Courthouse in Carlton? Rising from the ashes after a devastating fire in 2018, the space itself feels unsettled, adding to the sense of mystery. The audience is led through a narrow laneway space (lobby/ticketing/bar), and then past an office, before they’re squeezed into a snug seating area of not more than 60 seats. It is a fitting location for this dark and strange play.

Broken River has a simple plot. Junie Patel has been murdered, and her body has been discovered in a shallow grave in country Victoria. Who killed her, and why? As the narrative passes between two investigating police officers on one side, and a criminal family on the other, we see the distinction between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” become more and more hazy, until there is no difference, and we discover that everyone has blood on their hands.

Creatively, Broken River is well-executed. The stage is constructed using a multi-level scaffold, which provides the opportunity to move from scene to scene without need for a set change. Haunting jazz numbers broke the tension between dialogue-heavy scenes, and spotlights and torches add drama to a moody lighting scheme. For a show that is intended to be set in the present day, the props and costumes seem a bit more like the 90’s (with a conspicuous absence of our ever-present technology and screens), but they’re nonetheless effective.

The script is cleverly written. Tony Reck spatters servings of deception, mistrust and betrayal on a canvas of the bigger questions about right and wrong, family loyalty, and serving the greater good. It’s clear that the audience is being challenged to reconsider their preconceptions about institutions of power and the distribution of justice (not in the least because of the almost mantra-like repetition of the line “it’s the right thing to do”), but to what end? What was Broken River’s message? As an expose, one might say that the play beautifully uncovers the mechanisms of corruption, but we could also ask, so what? We left never knowing what it was that we were expected to learn. As one audience member commented; “now I’ve completely lost all faith in humanity”.

Yet overall, it was the impressive performances of the cast that audience members will remember. Carole Patullo was brilliantly unforgiving as Marlene Corchoran, as was Adrian Mulraney as Rowstone. Each one of the cast members revealed something about fear, ambition, vulnerability and self-preservation.  Are they themselves evil, or simply victims of circumstance? Loathing blends with pity, and anger, and helplessness.

For those who are addicted to true crime and love a good conspiracy theory, this play is gold. It contains all of the suspenseful and shocking elements that make for a titillating foray to the dark side. It is gritty and thought-provoking, and fascinatingly weird. For the rest of us, Broken River leaves too much unanswered and unresolved to be anything other than simply, uncomfortable.

set: 3.5/5

costumes: 3/5

Sound: 4/5

lighting: 3.5/5

performances: 4/5

stage management: 4/5

direction: 3.5/5


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