It’s not unusual for stories about adolescents to feel a little off. They tend to reflect young people like a fun house mirror – all the parts are there, and in all the right places, but they’re warped almost imperceptibly, so that only someone truly familiar with the current teenage experience can pinpoint exactly which parts are bent out of shape.
This is not the case for Full Throttle Theatre’s Samson.
Although I’m not familiar with the modern teenage experience, I found this production to be a eerily authentic reflection of my own experiences growing up in a small community, discovering how a single tragedy can rock one’s entire world.
Samson is a new Australian drama, which unpacks the fall-out of three friends – Essie, Beth and Sid – in the wake of a fourth’s death, and the introduction of Rabbit, an outsider a little further along in his own healing process. Throughout the play, we see the characters struggle with the same issues we all must face – life, death, sexuality, religion, blame and betrayal. They’re not small issues but the script, by Julia-Rose Lewis, unpacks each one with poignant subtlety, while Director Laurence Page and his young cast have injected wonderful realness into this production. On several occasions I found myself nodding along in recognition, as I watched the four characters navigate events, conversations and emotions that stirred vague recollections of my own childhood.
The main plot-line follows Essie (Danette Potgieter) and Rabbit (Levi Kenway), who meet on an overpass where Essie goes to think. Their relationship is a tricky one to pinpoint – flirtatious with the hint of a brother/sister dynamic, which becomes relevant as we learn more about Rabbit and his own past. Danette and Levi contrast one another terrifically. Danette plays Essie with all the anger, hurt and cynicism of a person coming to grips with their first major loss, while Levi’s Rabbit is the quintessential clown and a joy to watch. While at times early in Act One, I found myself wishing for more cracks in Rabbit’s funny-guy façade, as the story unfolded it become evident that this was a young man hiding his hurt beneath a hard outer shell. Levi brings great physicality and timing to his role, imbuing Rabbit with an infectious personality, which Danette was able to pick up and run with. Seeing the guilt weighing on Essie slowly lighten under Rabbit’s influence was beautiful, and there’s a terrific scene where the two talk about the dreams for the future that really allows the actors to illustrate their characters’ progress.
It’s hard to believe Rylie Hanson and Joseph Hallows, who play Beth and Sid, are last minute additions to the cast (the actors previously cast in these roles had to pull out due to other commitments). Rylie and Joseph gave faultless delivery of a demanding script they’ve had just three weeks to learn and created a convincing push and pull between their two characters as they tried to fill the gap left in their lives by the loss of Beth’s boyfriend and Sid’s best mate. Rylie gives all the sad acceptance expected of a girlfriend trying to move on gallantly, eventually transforming the emotion into a spitting anger as she discovers all was not as she thought. Joseph does a terrific job bringing to life a youthful stoicism, marred by confusion and uncertainty as his character struggles to adjust to shifting relationships with Beth and Essie, and Rabbit’s sudden appearance.
The cast also includes an ensemble that represents the heavily religious community in which our central characters operate. The ensemble’s repetitive appearance as a (dwindling?) church congregation is a wonderful depiction of day-to-day routine continuing as it always has, despite four young people being shaken to their cores. At times there seemed to be some attempts to establish characters and story-lines for individuals within the congregation, and I was disappointed when this foreshadowing didn’t eventuate to anything. I caught glimpses of what I suspect were a grieving Mother and Father, and a couple of teens who were also questioning their faith, and tried to follow their character arcs but ultimately felt lost here. I suspect a faceless crowd, rather than partly-formed individuals could have been more powerful in these scenes.
Throughout this show Laurence, the cast and the production team have created some real visual gems. The set, designed by the Glenn Shield (who I suspect doesn’t sleep for all the set design assignments he’s taken on recently), is supremely clever. Glenn has dreamt up three locations that cleverly sit side by side on the Courthouse’s small stage. Three brightly painted drops are lit as required to indicate the appropriate setting – the creek/memorial site, the church/suburbia, and the overpass where Essie and Rabbit meet regularly. These cartoon-like drops are complimented by a grimy overpass and a sloping rock, that allow for an interesting use of levels and blocking, and a burnt tree stump that becomes the site of the memorial. Within these spaces, the cast and crew have developed a highly aesthetic show: the slow build and sudden destruction of a candlelit memorial, the terrific use of the overpass by Essie and Rabbit, and an endearing moment that elicited an audible ‘awww’ of pain and disgust from yours truly as Beth tended to Sid’s sunburnt back.
As is typically the case with tech runs, there were some issues with diction and projection that had me leaning forward in my chair to try and pick up lines and I do think I missed some key dialogue in these scenes as a result. Pitch of voice during the more emotional scenes – especially among the young women – also affected clarity. The pacing in some parts seemed a little slow, although this generally irons itself out as a run continues, and there were some places where I could feel the actors restraining themselves during their performance – I’d love to see a more intuitive release of emotions in these places.
However, it is evident that this young cast has brought a lot of themselves to this show and as an audience member, I thank them for that. I have no doubt that this script and its subject matter required many deep conversations and personal revelations in order to unpack it as effectively as this show has. Well done to Laurence for creating a space that allowed his team the space, trust and creative expression to do exactly that.
Full Throttle’s Samson is a sensitive, funny and accurate depiction of growing up and is well worth seeing.
Full Throttle Theatre’s season of Samson runs 4-6 & 11-13 October 2018. For more information and tickets, visit their website.