Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Torrents

Program Cover
Celia Pacquola as Oriel Gray

This image has been sourced from
      Oriel Gray
This image has been sourced from

The Torrents by Oriel Gray.  Co-Production Black Swan State Theatre, Perth WA, and Sydney Theatre Company, at Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, July 18 – August 24, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 24

Photos by Philip Gostelow

Cast and Creatives

Claire Watson’s directing presents us with a tantalising light-hearted comedy of manners in which a ‘New Woman’ brings sense and sensibility to the self-destructing chaos of the male-dominated conventions of her time.  The Torrens is tightly intelligent – a play of ideas, played out in comic form.

Where have I come across this before?  In theatre, in plays by George Bernard Shaw like Mrs Warren’s Profession and Major Barbara; in David Williamson’s Dead White Males and the more recent When Dad Married Fury; all looking back, of course, to Aristophanes and Shakespeare.  Yet here is one that I had not known about before.

Why not, when in 1955 it was joint winner of the Playwrights' Advisory Board Competition with Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler?  In this production of The Torrents,  Celia Pacquola, comedian, provides us with a Puckish prologue, not so much along the lines of ‘Think but this, that you have slumbered here while these visions did appear” while The Doll has appeared in every school classroom and in thousands of productions.  She insults us by assuming that we haven’t read the program (who ever does?), and finally admits that The Torrens has had only one professional production – before this one, of course! – in Adelaide in 1996.

As Jenny Milford, writing her application to become a journalist in the 1890s with her presumed male initials J.G., we see Pacquola in a remarkably straight role as a woman of practical intelligence and humorous perspicacity who runs rings around the men – except for the young copy boy Bernie, played sympathetically by Rob Johnson, who carefully avoids allowing slapstick to make the role less important than I’m sure Oriel Gray intended.  He represents the young generation, learning fast about the changing role of women; just as we see beginning to happen for the other woman in the play, Gwynne.  One lunch with feminist Jenny, and Gwynne will not marry for money: only for love.

The production is carried off with panache – made especially enjoyable by the skilful acting and directing at the perfect level of comedy without falling into the trap of farce, nor the opposite trap of post-modern absurdism.  The 1950s script has a kind of innocence about its use of stock funny characters which could seem out of kilter with the serious issues in a genuinely independent woman’s life.  But this production gets the balance right.

The Torrens, as good as Summer of the Seventeenth Doll though it may be, is not up to Pygmalion or the best of David Williamson, but certainly deserves many more productions of this quality.  It definitely should be in all those classrooms where Pearl and Bubba are regularly studied, because Jenny Milford is a character who does not brook sentimentality, either about herself as a person and certainly not about how she is treated as a woman.  She is a person to be respected in her own right, and should be as much a centre of discussion by young people today as at any time in the past.

Among the other characters, the interest centres on the editor of the Koolgalla Argus, Rufus Torrent, and his relationships with his journalist son, Ben, and the paper’s owner, John Mason, for whom profitability takes precedence over originality and even truth.  I have to disclose my bias when saying I was pleased to see my one-time student, Steve Rodgers, allow Mason’s hard-line character just enough self-doubt to save him from being pure Rupert Murdoch; while also equally praising Tony Cogin and Ben Davies for revealing their human common sense as Pacquola’s Jenny made good sense against Mason’s prejudice and obstinacy.

The one character under written by Oriel Gray, I think, is Kingsley, the proponent of a water supply for an agricultural future for the dying gold mining industry of Koolgalla (i.e. Coolgardie/Kalgoorlie in real life).  Luke Carroll did his best and gave Kingsley our sympathy, but he remained a one-note character dependent on Jenny Milford’s capacity and generosity.  Perhaps Gray should have taken Kingsley to the point of suicide, as really happened in the model for his character – Charles O’Connor, whose 530-kilometre-long pipeline Eastern Goldfields Water Supply Scheme in Western Australia was finally completed, but only after his death.  Maybe Gray could not see how to put that story into her comedy.

Bringing Oriel Gray to the stage today – and including the program which we all should indeed read for its history of Pioneering Female Journalists of Australia, Alexina Wildman (1867-1896), Stella Allen (1871-1962), Leontine Cooper (1837-1903) and Louisa Lawson (1848-1920); and remembering her work performing and writing at the Australian Communist Party’s New Theatre, which took her on to becoming “the first paid playwright-in-residence in an Australian theatre” writing the Party’s weekly radio segment on station 2KY – is an important project for modern Australian theatre, especially for national status companies like Sydney Theatre Company.

On my arrival in this country in 1955, the theatres I found as my theatre interest grew were Doris Fitton’s middle class Independent in North Sydney, the Genesians doing Shakespeare (I remember Poor Tom in King Lear presented with Christian sympathy), the Elizabethan Theatre Trust showing the American Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and the New Theatre.  Their production of The Good Soldier Schweik, adapted from the anti-war novel by Jaroslav Hasek, was a high point of political satire as the birthday lottery system sent 18-year-olds to war in Vietnam in 1967.  What better introduction to my new land could I have had?  How good was that!

The essay in the program for The Torrents, “Oriel Gray, New Theatre and ‘the new woman’” is powerful history to follow her light-hearted comedy.  Enjoy the play, and read the program!

Steve Rodgers and Gareth Davies
Koolgalla Argus owner John Manson and Ben Torrent

Emily Rose Brennan
Gwynne, socialite engaged to marry Ben Torrent

Luke Carroll
Kingsley, contributor to Koolgalla Argus
on water supply scheme

Celia Pacquola and Tony Cogin
J.G. (Jenny) Milford and Koolgalla Argus editor Rufus Torrent

Sam Longley, Geoff Kelso and Rob Johnson
as Koolgalla Argus staff
Jock McDonald (manager), Christy (print compositor) and Bernie (copy boy)