Undertow (Shock Therapy Productions)
Brisbane Powerhouse, Underground Theatre
June 16 – 26
Metaphors abound in Shock Therapy Productions’ “Undertow”, beginning with its title. This is clear from the show’s start, which sees a school Principal addressing an assembly, clearly in the wake of difficult circumstances for the school community. Then there is school captain Connor (Sam Foster) struggling at footy practice ahead of grand finale, due to his academic and home life pressures. He is not the only one with a lot going on of course, because life can be harsh. The adults around him we soon see are under their own pressures, such as Constable Phil (Hayden Jones) who has been assigned to the school in response to its recent increase in drug related incidents. And then there is also Jessie, struggling to belong in his own skin as much as the world around him.
Things pace along as the audience is introduced to the characters and their struggles, both obvious and less, with all roles played by the Forster and Jones in a first-rate showcase of characterisation. In one segment, for instance, we see Jones transitioning from being and inflammatory Deputy Principal to a quiet and sensitive English teacher, a gruff football coach and then a mellow adolescent in almost the blink of an eye.
The work draws on a range of film conventions and physical theatre techniques. As such, it is highly energetic in its physicality, however, its pacing also gives the audience room to breathe amongst its weighty themes, with its humour (often around school experiences) appreciated by both school groups and adult mid-week matinee audience members alike. Foster’s scene as flirty school receptionist Karen, in particular, is a real hit.
Foster and Jones do an exceptional job in maintaining momentum across the show’s 60-minute duration, especially given the multiple roles that each performer adopts. With the aid of only small costume and/or prop additions, they transfer seamlessly in and out of roles, often mid scene while a companion of the conversation has a turn-away moment, with a skill that means there is never any confusion as to the characters. And Foster, in particular, gives a detailed, nuanced performance as Jesse, using body language to convey the teen’s vulnerability more than any words could, with consistently crossed arms attempting to envelope himself in from the world, hand always anxiously gripping at his shirt hem.
Careful construction is given to all aspects of this original work. Laura Jade’s vivid lighting design, punctuated by some striking strobe-lighting scenes works with Guy Webster’s evocative sound design of often foreboding instrumentation and a deliberateness to the soundscape that sees, for example, a school bell morph into the sounds of hospital equipment. And while there is some use of familiar stereotypes, the work cleverly subverts audience expectations of plot direction and character arcs.
Under the performers’ direction, “Undertow” is a taut show that packs a punch in its honest and powerful exploration of the themes of resilience, mental health, relationships, identity and empathy, without getting too dark or straying from its clear ultimate message about the need to breath and to always be kind and sensitive to each other even while focused on our own things, because you never really know what someone else is going through, no matter how calm things may seem on their surface. Not only is it an interesting take, but it gives audiences a realistic take-away about stress not just being an affliction of the young.