Tom Reed is an Australian playwright who hates horror/thriller films. Because they’re scary. So naturally, he decided to delve into the genre and write a play that delves into the very thing that frightens him.
The production’s mysterious promotional material, designed by Ashley Tardy, is engaging and had me excited about the show well before I got to the theatre.
Set in a radio studio where the regular program seeks to debunk supernatural stories for its flailing audience, Dead Air explores what happens when you call out to the void and an unexpected voice calls back. When August Mulholland, a former scientist, arrives to Clay Carter’s radio show, he brings proof of an unidentifiable supernatural presence. The recordings he has captured are broadcast across the radio waves, in turn waking up the presence and unleashing a force upon everyone in the studio.
First and foremost, the sound design by Darcy Long and John Erasmus was excellent, and the broadcasted recordings were fantastically eerie and excellently produced, which made for the perfect audio experience while watching a thriller radio show segment play out.
The one-hour play was presented at Bluestone Church Arts Space in Footscray, an old church that has been converted into a performance space. Directors Erasmus and Tardy have a good grasp on the plot and its characters. It was disappointing not to see a collaboration with a set or lighting designer, as the use of space was the least engaging element for me. A black curtain sectioned off and indicated a performance area encapsulating desks, chairs and partitions which created the interior of a radio station. I couldn’t help being fascinated by the church’s original architecture; a detailed wooden roof and sterile walls – and I found myself wondering how this could have been incorporated to create a much more creepy space without such an obvious theatrical curtain. A thrust or traverse space may have helped with the audience’s limited sight lines, as well as creating a more immersive experience. Lighting was kept simple throughout and adequately lit the performance, but I’d have happily sat in the dark or in flickering light at times for more suspenseful effect.
The cast were all suitably chosen for their roles. Jonathon Lawrence as larrakin ‘Duck’ created a comedic vibe before the show officially started with some not-so-subtle seat-dancing to a pretty questionable radio playlist. He remained the cheeky shock jock until his character was possessed, at which point, his presence completely transformed. As oddball radio host Clay Carter, Justin Anderson was a man on a mission, fixated on his desire to succeed in getting to the truth. Obsessed with the supernatural, his intense desire to experience what he could not see drove parts of the narrative and helped create palpable tension.
Gregory Caine gives the standout performance as August Mulholland, a former scientist standing on the edge of a precipice holding onto information is fears divulging. His performance starts off calm, however, watching the actor descend into madness is the highlight of the show. Rebecca Cullinan as radio producer Molly Wilde has a great presence and holds your attention as she tries to keep the radio show on the rails. Rose Flanagan as assistant Imogen Swoop makes the most of some scene-stealing moments and chillingly appears possessed, bringing chaos to the piece.
New Australian work is an exciting thing for our local industry, and it’s wonderful that a company such as Bitten By Productions is willing to sink its teeth into developing such works. I’d love to see this piece expand into more chilling territory in future productions. Few playwrights tackle the horror/thriller genre well and Reed’s writing remains interesting and detailed throughout. The performances are all completely invested, but to really sell the genre I’d suggest further development of the show’s atmosphere and the creative components of the environment.