Thrilled to attend this week, the world premiere of LAMB written by Jane Bodie, with four original songs by well known Hunters and Collectors frontman, Mark Seymour, at Red Stitch. Their commitment to supporting new work and Australian stories is commendable and always surprising to see what they place value on. Indeed, the loyalty to this work is even closer to home as it is one of only two developed through Red Stitch’s INK program and presented in association with Playwriting Australia through Ignition. At a base level, Bodie’s primary focus is how three siblings react to the recent death of their mother. At a much deeper level it explores issues of guilt, grief, lost aspirations, familial responsibility, secrets and the decision to stay or leave the farm/land due to drought and hardship – an issue faced by so many of our rural compatriots. One wonders if perhaps the title and the premise may be a slight nod to one of Australia’s most beloved novels, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet which also features the hardships of an Aussie family – the Lambs and the Pickles. Bodie’s skilled writing brings all these relatable threads together to instantly grab at your heart. But what gives this play additional interest is structurally having the Act 1 scenes played in reverse time so that we start with the funeral and then move a day backwards and then two days as we discover the revelation of the mother’s death. Act 2 jumps even further back in time, several decades in fact, so that we see the initial meeting of the siblings’ parents in the same pub, and then fast forward beyond the first scene, post funeral. It is a clever device and works well in allowing some earlier understated moments to increase their resonance by the playing out of lines or memories made earlier.
We are instantly drawn into the country town setting with Greg Clarke’s simple yet effective rustic wooden set design. Pub with modern bar fridge and TV on stage left and a small home kitchen opposite. The revolving switch to a vintage retro pub fridge and TV for the start of Act 2 was streamlined and clever. Directed by Julian Meyrick, there was an assuredness to the pacing and presentation -nothing rushed, moments allowed to be unspoken, and allowing each of the trio to have their own moment to shine. Some work on the natural flow in and out of the four heart felt country twang inspired songs perhaps needed attention, however the actual lyrics/songs themselves really added meaningful depth to the story and feelings at hand. Indeed it is only a couple lines in that we meet brother Patrick (Simon Maiden) singing and playing guitar at the wake of his mum at the local pub. Later his song about forgiveness really drew strong emotional reaction. Maiden’s characterisation was instantly endearing – making the most of his witty sarcastic lines much to the delight of the audience – and a nice juxtaposition to the heaviness of the topic of death and guilt. Into this difficult life experience enters black sheep Annie (Brigid Gallacher), returning after a long absence and successful career as a singer in the city. The raw and tense sibling interaction between these two was palatable. Maiden skilfully demanded our attention – he is so authentically watchable and present, and wears so many emotions on his face whilst saying very little at times. Gallacher was a little too unassuming at times in her connection to the others but seemed to come alive when playing Annie’s mother Mary in Act 2. The older sister to these two siblings is the mentally impaired Kat (and don’t dare call her Kathleen!) and was played withabsolute conviction and magnetism by Emily Goddard. She was a complete embodiment of innocence yet unwittingly and hilariously funny when she needed to be. The midnight cooking scene was thoroughly heart warming, rounded off humourously when she sneakily returns after all have left for the night. Kat’s discovery of her dead mother was one of the real highlights of the play as well as a real sense of heartbreaking humanity when she questions whether her mother really wanted her. Similarly, the interplay between the trio harmonising together as they sung the Sleep lullaby near the end was powerfully hypnotic.
Evocative lighting design by Efterpi Soropos really added to the changing moods and time periods of the play. And this, plus the sound design by Justin Garran – especially during the storm once again showed how transportive production elements can be in such a confined space. Despite some clunky or underdeveloped moments in the acting (not the writing), this was a story worth investing in. It is relevant, sincere and original in its exploration of fractured families. The audience was really invested in the story and their characters, laughing and being moved throughout, until the generous applause at the end. Well done to Red Stitch for investing in topical and engaging Aussie stories, and with fresh talent to their particular stage as well.