****

By Nick Pilgrim

This review may contain spoilers 

Free from the shackles of lockdown, Melbourne’s independent theatre scene is slowly but surely springing back to life. As fate would have it, in the past month I have had the good fortune to review four brand new Australian works, including two plays and two musicals. These being Dirt, Driftwood, Fast Food, and Late, Late At Night.

Last Friday evening I attended Hearth (29 Scenes) at Gasworks Theatre in Albert Park.

On the surface, Hearth is a private snapshot into one eventful day in the life of an ordinary family. Budding teenage photographer, Tom, is celebrating his eighteenth birthday. He is joined by both parents, his much older brother, and their exotic girlfriend. A deep secret revealed over the course of the afternoon, however, throws proceedings into heavy flux.

Using Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 as an ominous underscore to this piece, gives the overall narrative real bite. That this actual tragedy hovers in the story’s background, acts as both a metaphor and a catalyst to Hearth’s gripping climax.

With its running time of ninety minutes, this is an experience crafted with expert thought and care at every level. As a determined supporter for local content, I was thrilled to learn that Hearth has been selected for the 2022 VCE Studies Playlist as well.

Writer, Fleur Murphy, has not taken an easy route in bringing this project to life. Treating audiences with intelligence and respect, she has created an accessible and relatable drama which can be appreciated by mature viewers aged sixteen and above. It should be noted that Murphy also tests the parameters of good storytelling with several interesting techniques.

Her spare yet revealing style drops enough snippets of information for viewers to piece together the overall story. A clever hook, Murphy’s narrative demands our attention at all times.

Scenes are also placed in non-linear order. This ingenious juxtaposition and slow reveal, shifting time and events back and forth, adds to the play’s emotional power. (At times I was reminded of the recent Australian movie blockbuster, The Dry, which also uses a similar approach.) In the decade or more of shows I have covered for Theatre People, I can only think of one other example which employs this technique.

Another theatrical device is scattered throughout Hearth. Each actor steps out of the main storyline to illustrate a key personal or plot point. These monologues engage viewers, detailing their dreams, desires and motivations.

In Hearth, the actors and the creative team have joined forces to fully realise Murphy’s story. Like Fast Food (for Red Stitch) which I saw several weeks ago, this is very much an ensemble experience.

With an impressive list of credits shared between them, the cast of six includes Martin Blum, Geoff Paine, Carole Patullo, Kurt Pimblett, Sonya Suares and Eleanor Webster. The disciplined dynamic achieved between the performers was both convincing and relatable. Thanks to Murphy’s naturalistic dialogue and the cast’s comfortable ease executing it, these are people you could identify with or actually know.

Direction by Tom Royce-Hampton kept the action engaging and focused. With this input critical to the play’s success, at key points the actors had to change facial expressions and body language to communicate a mood or feeling in a flash.

Excellent technical support added to the poetic fluidity of this piece.

Through the usage of fades and flares, Clare Springett’s precise lighting design creates necessary tension where needed. Rusty red, yellow and brown made for a very convincing dry and dangerous Summer.

Where necessary, subtle sound design by Tom and Max Royce-Hampton incorporates bird calls and intermittent radio reports to underscore and build tension as the story unfolds.

Set and costume design by Chantal Marks is both realistic yet dreamlike at the same time. Clothing choices are kept to a minimum.  However, the use of props such as a man’s baseball cap or a woman’s blouse turned inside out, help to define either time stamps or a befuddled emotional state.

The overall staging is also deceptively simple. Marks’ tall hanging drapes made to look like towering trees, frame the space on three sides. Their emphatic presence is also employed throughout Hearth to great effect.

Gasworks Theatre, like Chapel off Chapel in Prahran and indeed Red Stitch in St. Kilda, is the perfect venue for this kind of story. Raked seating allows audience members to watch at one with the action. This proximity both draws and invites viewers onto the stage.

With all of the above elements in mind, Murphy’s powerful play is a journey very much worth taking.

Hearth continues its Victorian season at the Kingston Arts Centre in Moorabbin (June 15) and Burrinja Cultural Centre in Upwey (on June 17).