Throw together a perpetual hoarder, a gay social activist, an insta-famous ‘starlet’, a reliable school teacher and her quasi property investor / financial guru husband and you have the makings for a hilarious comi-drama. The world premier of ’Torch the Place’, Benjamin Law’s debut as playwright, has a lot to feel good about.
Most will be familiar with Law as the writer of the highly successful SBS memoir sitcom ‘The Family Law’ and his many hats as regular ABC journo. His leap into theatre, again taking the dysfunctional Asian-Australian bent, while not without flaw, is an earnestly written piece that offers a glimpse of the cultural complexities us of non Asian-Australian background are privy to.
The family matriarch (Diana Lim) a feisty, fiercely independent divorcee and determined cancer battler nearing her 60th year, is a hoarder of epic proportions. Her kids, teacher Theresa (Fiona Choi), social influencer Natalie (Michelle Lim Davidson) activist Toby (Charles Wu) and son in law Paul (Max Brown) increasingly concerned for her welfare from years of hoarding, reunite at the family home with a ‘special’ 60th birthday gift. But the reality is, it is a whole lot more than a reunion, it’s an intervention, an intervention that opens the wounds from decades of secrets, half truths and lies.
Law creates a narrative that traverses sitcom-esque comedy and relatable poignancy. There are some genuinely laugh out loud moments alongside toe curling junctures that come from ripping the bandaid off years of family disfunction. The writing for the most part is solid but there are occasions that tarnish this theatrical debut. A bizarre moment where the family discover male appendage shaped ceiling mould is jarring and bewildering – did we miss something in the pre-amble? And a few occasions of histrionics at emotional moments blemish the story’s powerful messages.
After her wonderful performance in the hit movie The Farewell, Diana Lim is the mother haunted by past tragedy. Ably supported by each of her children, all performances are strong, defined and particularly focussed as this is a piece that for the most part, plays at a brisk pace, off in a myriad of tangents. It really is a wild and exciting ride.
But perhaps the strength in this show is the strong emotional build Law and director Dean Bryant manage to create. From the onset you may think this is simply funny family banter and jibes, but we soon see the unravelling of years of family guilt, hurt and mistrust. It is particularly affecting witnessing the family negotiate the boundaries of mum’s life altering de-cluttering.
‘Torch the Place’ throw’s a lot at you in it’s 90 minutes – it’s funny, poignant, brash, but lovingly created. A solid debut from a clever writer that with further development and refinement has all the mechanics to evolve into an even better piece of theatre.
‘Torch the Place’ performs at the Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio until March 23.
photos by Jeff Busby