Fourteen (shake & stir theatre company)
QPAC, Cremorne Theatre
August 27 – September 17
The Cremorne Theatre stage is packed with nooks and crannies to become the Yeppoon settings of Shake and Stir Theatre Company’s latest page-to-stage adaptation, the world premiere of “Fourteen”, as part of this year’s Brisbane Festival program. Dan Venz’s slick choreography ensures that places appear in a flash from amongst Josh McIntosh’s effective set design, with even characters emerging with blink and you could miss it precision. The show is fast moving from the outset, propelled along by a dynamic soundscape of not just ‘90s bangers of the angsty ‘Prisoner of Society’ sort, but atmospheric sounds of birds, between class movement and alike (sound design by Guy Webster), placing us firmly into the time and place of the show’s share of Shannon Molloy’s story, first told in the award-winning journalist’s 2020 best-selling memoir.
In many ways, period pieces can be contradictory, as we simultaneously reflect nostalgically upon pleasant point-in-time memories, while also giving thanks for how far we have hopefully have come as a society. In this instance, 1999 is seen through the lens of the trauma of Shannon’s (Conor Leach) childhood. Life is tough for young, gay and creative Shannon growing up in the Central Queensland coastal town, especially thanks to his attendance at its hyper-masculine, rugby-obsessed, all-boys school. From the first day of Year 9 we see his fourteenth year play out in a series of humiliations from entitled school bullies harassing him in suspect of his queerness, and so learn that he is in a dangerous place of struggle.
Fabian Holford’s costume design captures the story’s 1999 setting and, along with its of-the-era soundtrack, offers light in the darkness of Shannon’s bitter misery. Under Nick Skubij’s sensitive direction, however, “Fourteen” is ultimately about conquering trauma through family, loyalty, love and support, as well as a reminder of the importance of r-u-ok give-pause type moments in others’ lives.
The story’s darkness and light through hopeful moments are well balanced. There is a real discomfort and some potentially triggering moments to the heartbreaking honesty of the bullying and betrayal at the core of Shannon’s story (the play contains strong coarse language, mature themes around suicide and sexual identity, simulated violence and depictions of sexual abuse), however from the early action of his being bullied, we are subtly transitioned through the poignancy of the story’s latter parts to the optimism of its ultimate message. And there is a lot of laughter and late ‘90s nostalgia along the way.
So slick is the story’s initial unfold, that it takes a little while to realise that despite the number of characters making appearance, there are, in fact, only seven performers in its cast. The many swift and diverse character changes must represent a challenge to the actors and they all do well to establish the distinction of each of their characters through more than just their sometimes small costumes changes or additions, but rather the realisation of different physicalities of statue and gait. Johnny Balbuziente’s is particularly adept at this, transitioning with ease between characters such as Shannon’s protective older brother Brent and his brutish school bully.
Leon Cain shows incredible versatility as Shannon’s disconnected dad, an intolerant school teacher and also the overly-enthusiastic Andy, the school’s only out gay. Similarly, Helen Cassidy easily transitions between the disparate roles of Shannon’s protective older sister Trinity, one of his besties since Primary School Nicole and even a joyful, caring art teacher. The best scenes, however, come from Amy Ingram as Shannon’s other bestie Morgan, especially in her hilarious drunken party pash scene with Shannon (evidence, he thinks, that he may only be half gay).
Karen Crone anchors things as the rock of Shannon’s family, his down-to-earth mother Donna, but has her own break-out, audience-favourite high-energy Mambo No. 5 fashionista moment as Jessica, star of the fashion show Shannon is executive producing. And Mitchell Bourke makes Shannon’s first serious boy crash, Tom, at-once gentle, genuine and mischievous. This makes for Shannon’s ‘Kiss Me’ “She’s All That” moment, all the more lovingly received by the audience.
This is, however, Leach’s show. As first person narrator of the episodic narrative, he is barely off stage. With gentle mannerisms, soft voice and natural enthusiasm, he gives us a Shannon that is unapologetically, authentically himself, immediately endearing the protagonist to his audience and investing us in his emotional journey from hurt towards healing.
Unfortunately, experiences of bullying and feelings of isolation and alienation are just as current and relatable today as in the late ‘90s of the story’s setting, and the show offers resonance and reassurance to young people that from fourteen things are going to be fine.. great even. However, its appeal goes beyond just this demographic. Indeed, anyone who has experienced some part of their youth in the ‘90s or some section of the life as a teenage in a rural town where doing laps around the shopping centre represented the height of boredom-busting entertainment, will be able to identify with its all too real reminders of Lemon Ruskis, dial up modems and the Vengaboys intercity disco.
As a queer Australian story, “Fourteen” is not only important, but inspirational in its moving ‘don’t stop, never give up, hold your head high and reach the top’ anthem messaging of resilience and hope. The verbatim ensemble piece is not only an exciting example of Australian contemporary performance, but a dope technicoloured trip back in time that should not be missed.
Photos – David Fell