Away (Sydney Theatre Company, Malthouse Theatre)

26 February 2017 | 10:25 pm | Sam Baran

"In 'Away', you'll find messages of entitlement, xenophobia and the good ol' dour, can-do Aussie spirit."

It's Christmas time in Australia, 1967. Term has ended, the school play was a huge success, and everyone's clad in charming sweater-vests and over-the-waist trousers. It's a great time to be alive for Tom and Meg, love-struck stars of the school show, and their families are busy packing for their respective getaways to the Gold Coast or, in Tom's case, nowhere in particular. Wherever they're bound, they just want to get away.

This Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre co-production of Away is big, grand and loud. Director Matthew Lutton has characters stalking through a forest of ceiling-mounted chains across the ample stage of the Sydney Opera House's Drama Theatre. Between relatively naturalistic scenes, warped interludes explore the psychological undertones of this text. Animal-headed figures dance strange, buzzing, blue-lit revels to the rhythms of discordant hums. Hysteria reigns, giving way to heated arguments and heartfelt existential pleas. And when it all comes crashing down — as it does from time to time — the quiet moments bring the audience back and lend a chance to breathe.

There is no denying Michael Gow's tried-and-true classic is a distinctly Australian story, but it also plays with universal themes. At the centre of it all spins Coral, the headmaster's wife, deeply affected by the loss of her son to the Vietnam War; Meg's mother, consumed by the rabid desire to keep her family from what she sees as social destitution; and Tom's parents, recent migrants finding a new life in Australia with their troubled son. But despite endless tragedies of the everyday, there are many laughs to be had. Gow's dialogue is sharp and polished, steering the play clear of cringe-worthy melodrama and instead creating interactions exaggerated enough to be funny, yet disturbingly close to home.

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Picking through the scattered grains of sand in Away, you'll find messages of entitlement, xenophobia and the good ol' dour, can-do Aussie spirit that still ring true today, some three decades since it was first performed. The masterful performance of the cast — Marco Chiappi, Julia Davis, Wadih Dona, Glenn Hazeldine, Natasha Herbert, Heather Mitchell, Liam Nunan and Naomi Rukavina — breathes life into characters and jokes that haven't aged a day. A profusion of bizarre moments and excellent non-sequiturs break up nicely the somewhat intense interactions between the characters. With all that's going on, it's hard to look away.

Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre presents Away, to 25 Mar at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, and 3 — 28 May, Malthouse Theatre.