Claire Lovering and John Howard in Rising Water | Playhouse

As far as Tim Winton’s works go, Rising Water is the one that comes closest to home for me, geographically speaking. It’s set in Fremantle Sailing Club, just down the road from where I grew up. Unlike many of the other clubs in the Perth area, it’s home to serious sailors as well as to those who merely wish they were. The club has its fair share of stink boats, but they are well balanced by ocean-going cruisers, racing yachts and the occasional ‘floating caravan’ with a live-aboard owner.

It’s into the world of three live-aboards that Rising Water goes, and setting the play across the decks of their three yachts and the jetty to which they are moored is inspired. The boats, “girt by sea”, symbolise both the loneliness and fiercely held independence of their inhabitants. Col, Baxter and Jackie all have their demons, demons that they keep pressed far down into the bilges of their little floating homes even as they cling to the image of escape and freedom that living on a boat affords.

But these demons can’t stay down forever. Baxter’s collection of junk, trawled up from the murky depths of the harbour, is metaphor enough for this, and the arrival of a drunk, foul-mouthed, half-dressed English backpacker, played by Claire Lovering, is all the hook that’s needed to bring half-sunk events from the past rising to the surface.

Thrown into the mix is the unease that Jackie, played by Alison Whyte, feels about the overpowering symbolism of Australia Day and its inherent ironies. It’s a discomfort that she finds hard to explain and which soon comes to mirror her own sense of a life that hasn’t quite lived up to expectations.

The discussion about the national flag is one that I feel I’ve heard a hundred times before, yet this doesn’t make it tiresome. As with the allusions to WA Inc, the mining boom and the well-to-do Claremont class — all elements that are seeped into the social fabric of Perth — Jackie’s unease is comforting in its familiarity, yet confronting in its presence on the stage.

The set is brilliant not only in allowing the drama to play out in a space that is highly defined, but also because the separation of the action between the three boats and the jetty is vital to the development of the characters. The divide between the boats is at times crossed like a bridge towards intimacy as the characters open up about the past, but at other times it becomes a threat to another’s space.

Baxter, played by John Howard, is the one who seems most damaged, yet it’s onto his boat that the others come. Their presence is evidence of him “leaving the hatch open”, Jackie’s metaphor for hope and getting on with life in spite of past pain that clings on and won’t let go. When the young boy, an invisible presence to the other characters, makes his appearances on Baxter’s boat, he does so via Jackie’s. Again, it’s a metaphor — for the way that Jackie and Baxter relate to one another throughout the play.

The acting is superb: John Howard in particular inhabits his role and does justice to Winton’s realism. Howard and Geoff Kelso, who plays Col, exchange barbs, slang and metaphor that’s almost too rich to be real, yet it is anchored by their performances. Winton’s use of written language, so well known from his novels, translates brilliantly onto the stage, and gives Winton scope to push the boundaries of that language into humour, allusion and slang in a way that might almost be too much for a novel.

The play is hilarious at the beginning, with many of the jokes eliciting laughter from the audience immediately, while other jokes took a moment or two to figure out. This hilarity, this depiction of an easy, surface-level relationship between Col, Baxter and Jackie living side by side on their boats, is an excellent set-up for what follows: a cynical breaking-down of the walls they have built between them; the collapse of the careful independence they have cultivated in order to keep demons at bay; and the re-building of something resembling hope.

The details: Rising Water is at the Playhouse, Arts Centre until September 10. Tickets on the company website.