Written by Tim Winton
Music by Ian Grandage
Directed by Kate Cherry
Designed by Christina Smith
Featuring Alison White, Claire Lovering, Geoff Kelso, John Howard, Stuart Halutz and Kai Arbuckle and Callum Fletcher (alternating)
Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre
June 25 – July 17, 2011
Rising Water marks the arrival of the Heath Ledger Theatre, and Black Swan as its resident company. It’s a big-hearted entertainment with some striking assets, the most important of which hits you the moment you take your seat.
Christina Smith has done the play, and the theatre space, a great service with her set; three boats bobbing – actually bobbing – in their pens, with deep blue gleaming water below and a transmuting Indian Ocean sky above.
It’s brilliant to look at, and a perfect platform on which director Cate Cherry can manage the story and her cast. Significantly, it's the first design that solves the problems of visual focus in the space and makes the great curving wood surfaces of the auditorium look right at home.
The anticipation ahead of Tim Winton’s first purpose-written stage play has been palpable, and, by and large, it doesn’t disappoint. That’s not to say that Winton should quit his day job for the theatre, but his great powers – language and the words within it – along with his nimble ability to move from the gutter to the stars in a blink are on show here.
There’s a lot to laugh about in Rising Water, even if the characters aren’t drawn deeply enough for us to cry for them. It’s a play where there’s much more talking than doing, but everything that does happen is on account of the sudden arrival, as pissy Australia Day celebrations rock the marina, of the foul-mouthed, provocative young English back-packer Dee (Claire Lovering).
There’s energy in the working out of the story, and the twist in its tail is both surprising and inevitable enough to be dramatically satisfying. The dénouement, thanks again to Smith’s design, supported by Ian Grandage’s evocative soundscape and Matt Scott's aquamarine lighting, is a treat to experience.
Her confronting behaviour, and just who and what she is, drags the secrets out of the boats’ residents, Baxter (John Howard), Col (Geoff Kelso) and Jackie (Alison Whyte). Dee is always going to take advantage of the situation, fracturing the comfortable but wary co-existence the three boaties had constructed for themselves.
I wasn’t especially swept up in the other reality Winton occasionally injects into the work in the person of the Boy (Kai Arbuckle and Callum Fletcher alternating), but the motifs common to all his work still have plenty of power, even if some might feel they are now a little overworked here.
It must be said that Rising Water is a fairly parochial piece, and it will be interesting to see how well it travels. There were times when you wondered at the capacity of the (very well-heeled) audience to laugh at the hand that feeds them, but having a good old crack at complacent, white bread Perth has been a free kick for decades, and there’s little evidence we’re about to tire of it.
We’re also unlikely to tire of the cast Cherry has recruited for the voyage to this Gilligan’s Island. Claire Lovering, despite an occasionally overworked North London accent, gives Dee a dirty smoulder that carries both her repulsiveness and attraction convincingly. It’s an auspicious professional debut for the 2010 WAAPA prizewinner. There’s always a danger that Geoff Kelso’s bravura style and pervasive funniness can unbalance his scenes, but here he’s a perfect foil for John Howard, who, despite not quite having his sea legs at times, fills the difficult character of Baxter to overflow.
Alison Whyte gives a controlled performance as a woman who’s practiced at keeping herself, the people around her and what she does with them on an even keel. She brings a compelling stillness to her character, even when the seas she navigates get choppy and the undertow she battles get strong.