The partnership between Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company and Black Swan State Theatre Company brings the world premiere of Skylab to the State Theatre Centre’s Studio Underground. Playwright Melodie Reynolds-Diarra, a Wongutha, Nadju woman from Western Australia, is also a WAAPA graduate and actor of stage, TV and radio.
Based on the real event of NASA’s Skylab space station crashing to earth in 1979 in Esperance, the play focuses on the domestic circumstances of a fictional family who live on the unintended crash site, and whose lives are about to make a strange and dramatic change.
The first act highlights the domestic life of a couple, Jem and Nev, as they struggle to pay bills and feed their three children, Amy, Sonia and Nate, due to Nev being a victim of wage exploitation. Enter Uncle Harvey whose disdain for the establishment is palpable and often expressed through intermittent tirades – though I suspect that most, if not all, of what he says is true. Indeed, his tirades seem justified when the real day-to-day plight of Jem and Nev is emphasised by the empty fridge (revealed as the door repeatedly swings open) and cries from the hungry kids. When Jem tells the kids they have to have Weetbix for dinner, the kids reply “Not again!”. It is a heartbreaking moment. Nev has a job and the couple live in a modest home, yet they can’t put a decent meal on the table.
The domesticity is broken up by reports of Skylab falling to earth and NASA being unsure about where it will land. Uncle Harvey is suspicious about the reports and retires to his shed to make calculations and tune his radio, trying to find secret/cryptic reports about the true trajectory of the space station.
Writer Reynolds-Diarra and director Kyle Morrison do not allow the play to dwell on the hardship of the characters. Instead, the actors portray hopeful and resilient characters who find joy and purpose in the simple things. For example, the children love to watch the show Monkey Magic, a very popular TV show in the late 70s and 80s. It was a very pleasant ‘walk down memory lane’ to hear the children talk about the characters, sing the theme song and do the whistling finger action. These events pay off later in Act Two when the play takes on its own magical twist. I won’t spoil the fun by giving away the plot line, though I’m not sure how audiences who haven’t seen Monkey Magic will interpret the constant references, and especially the magic cloud ride scene.
During the play we hear the characters talk about Nan (played by Rayma McGrath Morrison) and the play is book-ended by her presence as she performs some sort of ritual: at first preparing a dish in a big pot, then finally dishing up the contents to her family. McGrath Morrison’s performance was elusive and mysterious, and the character deftly takes the play into another realm, outside of realism, as if the events of Skylab are all part of a mysterious, otherworldly trajectory for the family. On the other hand, the final scene could be interpreted as an almighty thud back to reality. The ending is deliberately ambiguous and is better for it.
The relatively inexperienced cast did well with the material, particularly Alan Little who plays Nev with the right level of cheekiness and bravado, further illustrating his resilience. The opening night cast of children was Juliette Laylan as Amy, Benjamin Narkle as Nate and Liani Dalgetty as Sonia. Director Morrison did a remarkable job working with the children who were all delightful and showed tremendous potential to develop their stage craft beyond this production. Their sense of fun and enthusiasm was contagious. Laila Bano Rind played the role of Jem with grace, while Gary Cooper’s Uncle Harvey was suitably unhinged, angry and vengeful. Uncle Harvey’s wish in the second act is haunting and filled me with dread and shame, as I think was intended.
Matthew McVeigh’s set design was inventive and functional, complemented by Mia Holton’s excellent design of visual effects. Mike Nanning’s lighting design and Dr Clint Bracknell’s compositions/sound design were effective and unobtrusive.
It is great to see a new work by a Western Australian playwright being supported by the remaining theatre companies in Perth and I hope this continues. I look forward to seeing more plays from Melodie Reynolds-Diarra and encourage her to continue to take audiences into the worlds of Dreaming and Ancestors.
Skylab is showing at the State Theatre Centre, Studio Underground until 2 September then tours to Karratha (5 September), and Carnarvon (8 September).
Photo credits: Dana Weeks