He doesn’t move much. It’s what John Cleese said, as best I recall it, to Michael Palin, the pet shop manager, in Monty Python Flying Circus‘ iconic dead parrot sketch. Griffin Independent’s latest, This Is Where We Live, winner of last year’s Griffin Award, was written by Vivienne Walshe and is directed by Francesca Smith. It doesn’t move much, either. Well, not physically. We’re stuck, like bunyips in a billabong, in outback Australia, or outback anywhere, off the deadbeaten track, where men are men; sheep and women, justifiably nervous.
Yalin Ozucelik is Chris. Ava Torch, Chloe. Chris and Chloe are of highschool age and it’s there they meet. Chris is, invidiously, the son of their English teacher, a severe, embittered man whose world view is carved in stone. He has fixed ideas about most things and his son is no exception. Not is Chloe. He’s certain he knows what’s good for Chris and Chloe, who he sees as a subversive slut, isn’t. He’s typecast her, just as we are all, to a lesser or greater extent, typecast. Just as we all, to a lesser or greater extent, typecast others. We humans seem to feel most comfortable when everything’s boxed and labelled.
Chloe’s had a hard life to this point. And far from a case of “the future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades”, it’s hard to discern any light at the end of the tunnel. Her mother sees an opening for her, however. As a local pool attendant. She has ‘the figure for it’. She’s ‘polio poor’. Her limp isn’t her only disfigurement. She’s been bullied, intimidated and abused. And that’s just at home. Out in the wider world, she’s regarded as a skanky whore; town bike; call her what you will. To make matters worse still, she’s the new girl in town, regarded with a hostile mixture of suspicion and unhealthy fascination. Chris’ father makes life even harder for her, day in, day out. She’s little left, other than her burgeoning sexuality. And she’s not afraid or averse to using it. It’s potency, after all, can ward off, as well as attract. What makes you vulnerable can also make you stronger. Chloe is wise to this and, through prior education at the school of hard knocks, savvy, sassy and streetwise more generally.
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Chris is a weirdo and nerd. But a pretty cool guy, all the same; in an anti-cool kinda way. He’s what used to be called an oddball. His father sits like an anvil on his spirit, pressing down his personality like a steam-iron; starching and folding it, till its as white and rigid as his own. In this way, Chris limps lamely through his life too.
Opposites attract would be the applicable cliche. For, somehow, against all odds, the two of them find common ground. In the space between the two, or where their animas overlap, they can suddenly see possibilities, a life beyond the twisted Truman Show in which they’re trapped.
The narrative, with its mythological undertow, is engrossing enough and one which will compel country town audiences should it take off on a regional tour. But the primary skills here are poetical. Thanks to a fusion of purpose from all involved in the page-to-stage transition, Walshe’s musical prose is set alight. All movement is steered but it. The choreography is linguistic; verbal. Both Torch and Ozucelik put in commanding performances; imbibing their characters, as if channelling fictional souls into their very viscera.
Smith instils an almost relentless, metrical momentum: if the work has a fault (doubtful), it may be that the camera could be cranked a little, allowing VW’s wonderful constructions to float just a little longer, for more thorough digestion.
There’s oohing passive about this theatre. TIWWL calls on us to invent much of the action and certain dimensions of the characters in our mind’s eye. In some ways, this is as much reading, or radio drama, as play, in the sense we typically understand it. It’s a black box propped, lit costumed and coloured as much by words as actions or objects. Even sound effects are delivered live, by way of onomatopoeic licence.
Three men and a baby seemed to cope alright. Given this tremendous text, two actors, four chairs and handfuls of twinkling stars fashioned into a glittering river suffice superbly. The seeming severity of text and two hands alone would’ve sufficed even better. It’s edifying to paint your own pictures when paint and brushes are of such quality.
This Is Where We Live is a story of rural toxicity very well-told. Fields of dreams are poisoned with emotional pesticides. Rivers of opportunity strangled by noxious weeds. It’s not really where we, or anyone, wants to live. High time we restored this lost landscape, formerly abundant with ripe, young fruit.
The details: This Is Where We Live plays Griffin’s SBW Stables Theatre until July 13. Tickets on the company website.