Exploring both the warmth and poison that can permeate family life, (as well as some other heavy themes and situations) La Mama’s The Savages of Wirramai is at times heart-warming, heartbreaking, tense, anxious and amusing. Such is the skill of the writer, cast and director that many sides of the story can be told with such sincerity.

The Savages of Wirramai is an epic family drama set in rural Australia, where three sisters meet at their father’s farm for the annual Anniversary/ANZAC Day weekend. Old resentments, controversies and hurts come out, and the family is left to deal with a terrible loss. We all know this kind of family, or at least have a few of these family members ourselves.

The cast brilliantly portrayed a dysfunctional family with all the history, familiarity and hierarchy subtly communicated in great detail. Across the board, projection and diction were strong, especially when taking into consideration the tall, domed roof of the space.

Kirsty Child’s experience was put to good use as the mother of the Savage family. A woman who somehow missed the changing times of the 1960’s, she is devoted to her husband and children, blind to the pain held below. Child’s representation of this woman clawing to maintain the status quo was captivating.

Angel, the daughter who still lives at home to care for her parents, was played beautifully by Cherie Mills. Angel’s anxiety was palpable, she spends the play constantly being brought down by everyone in the family about her weight and spinsterhood, nevertheless putting everyone’s well-being before her own. Mills’ ability to achieve such a heightened, yet sincere emotional performance was breathtaking and was an absolute joy to witness.

Kirsty Snowden’s Cassie (the youngest daughter) had impressive range in emotion, stature and character depth. Sensitively and expertly handling a double of intense themes (drug addiction and sexual abuse), this well-rounded performance was a pleasure to watch, as well as being particularly moving. Snowden’s inebriated moments travelled through a scope of emotions, rather than simply being wobbly and silly, which complimented the text artfully.

Mill’s and Snowden’s chemistry on stage was portrayed and written with much care. The two would speak to each other in their family’s biting language (the way they’d been brought up to interact) but they would react with remorse and love, evidently hating to hurt the one family member they know cares for them truly.

Devina, the sister who believes herself to be the only “normal” one in the family was played by Anna den Hartog. Her character’s descent and attempted rebellion against her father was striking. There was one moment a pivotal and climactic lines was lost through sobs, but this was a rare moment in an otherwise very strong performance.

Liam Gillespie played Matthew, Devina’s son, the powerless and resigned grandson. His exasperated “yeah no great” and bewildered “woof?!” were memorable moments, as well as a visible tenseness throughout his uncomfortable stay with his grandparents.

The father was played by David Macrae, stunted emotionally, controlling, selfish and perhaps cruel, but somehow still could touch the hearts of the audience. David’s emotional scenes later in the show took what could have been a one-sided story and made this piece the well-rounded story it is.

Kevin Summers’ direction was balanced and effective, nurturing beautiful performances from his actors. Some fantastic images come to mind, a pivotal line of Cassie’s was sent upstage for us to see the incredible impact on the faces of her family. Devina and Angel’s beautiful juxtaposed reactions in the face of grief. The rapid flurry of dialogue in the broad Australian accent would perhaps in other hands be unclear, but here was always easy to follow.

For this reviewer the only poor choice was the clattering of cutlery in the dinner scene, which was distracting and made it obvious that fake food was being used. It also seemed as though a few specific lighting moments would be brought back in a more significant manner, whilst not doing so, it was an affectation to guide the eye and supported the emotional undertone of certain moments effectively.

This script is hopefully one that will be again performed in many venues. Few theatrical writers so accurately adopt realistic speech whilst sounding pleasant, coherently developing plot, supporting an actor’s range and ability. Sandy Fairthorne has touched on heavy themes with poise and depth, with humour, wit and profundity. Her ability to delve into the heart of each character’s feelings allow the audience to truly connect to the one that attracts them, not just the author’s chosen protagonist. Also two clever puns made this reviewer very happy, always a pleasure to see an original play on words.

Sophie Woodward’s set design put the audience squarely in rural Australia, down to the knitted blanket that every Australian somehow has in their household. Two large, angled net curtains add a hint of the otherworldly, suggesting the heightened atmosphere of the later moments in the play. Stelio Karagiannis’ lighting design added an appreciated subtlety and specificity that suited the tone of the production, especially the occasional use of the netting as a scrim or reflector.

If you’re wanting to support quality, original Australian theatre (which you should) I can thoroughly recommend La Mama’s The Savages of Wirramai. Congratulations to the cast, crew and creatives.

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