Driftwood The Musical

by | May 8, 2023

Bu Nick Pilgrim

How time flies. 

Exactly one year ago I was offered the chance to preview Driftwood, a brand-new and completely home-grown live musical. 

Using the memoir of the same name by Eva de Jong-Duldig as its springboard, this powerful war-torn drama spanned forty years across four continents. Twelve months on, Driftwood has touched audiences both here and interstate, with plans for a special international season in New York City as well. 

Close friends know if have enjoyed a show, I’ll make room in my hectic schedule for repeat viewings. It can be a fascinating exercise to see new and different details missed the first time around, too. 

Examples from my obsession include Calamity Jane, Come From Away, Titanic, Wicked, and multiple interpretations of A Chorus Line, Company, Merrily We Roll Along, Sweeney Todd, and The Boy From Oz.  (The last show by coincidence, I am attending later this month staged by the Williamstown Musical Theatre Company.) 

Now, handed the opportunity to see Driftwood again, I was curious how watching it for a second round would impact my thoughts. This journey is no longer an unknown quantity. But instead, a fond acquaintance revisited. 

If opening night’s standing ovation was any indication, Driftwood is a show which knows both itself and its intended (and wide-reaching) demographic very well. Drawing viewers in from the very first musical note, this experience packs quite the emotional punch.   

The show’s arc also carries a compelling question: “Facing imminent danger, what would you do? Pack up your life and leave, or stay and fight?” 

For Slawa Horowitz-Duldig and her husband Karl Duldig, any path to freedom from Vienna’s changing pre-war climate wouldn’t be an easy decision. As brilliant young artists, there had to be consideration for saving their work. To abandon this collection, meant erasing both themselves and the couple’s significant contribution to modern art. 

Racing against the clock, the pair engineered a risky solution which took the family halfway around the world before ultimately settling in Australia. 

Later, through their grown daughter’s insistent prodding and clever detective work, she jigsaws together deep secrets from her parents’ rocky past. Eva’s determination not only fills in the gaps from her own history, but allows her mother to make peace with the dual weight of survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. Driftwood is a show which speaks as much for the people who made it through World War Two, as well as a heartfelt tribute to those who were lost.

Like the premiere season in 2022, Gary Abrahams again directs the story with gentle care and expert precision. With a masterful eye for timing, he allows this production to live and breathe right before our eyes. Linear in construction, Driftwood is presented as a series of powerful episodes. Unfolding piece by significant piece, one cannot help but be moved by its overall strength. 

Writer, Jane Bodie, brings de Jong-Duldig’s book to effortless life. By allowing her narrator, Eva, to observe or shift in and out of the action, Bodie’s use of dialogue gives Driftwood both historical meaning and current truth. 

Anthony Barnhill’s intertwining musical composition is presented in such a way, that his collection of markers become vital to the story. Whether sung or sung through, each tune expands on a key moment, turning Driftwood into a chamber drama underscored by stirring interludes. Sensitive to the story, Barnhill’s songs encapsulate the historical and geographic circumstances of the show’s protagonists as well. 

Very much a memory piece with a strong emphasis on mood and texture, Design (by Jacob Battista), Costumes (by Kim Bishop), Lighting (by Harrie Hogan), AV (by Justin Gardham), and Sound (by Marcello Lo Ricco), work together as a cohesive and elegant whole. 

Their work is supported by Sophie Loughran (Choreography), Stage Management (Tiff Lane), and a luscious three-piece trio with Barnhill (Musical Director on piano), Roy Theaker (on violin), and Kalina Krusteva (on cello). 

Led by Tania de Jong AM (as Slawa), the five-person veteran acting ensemble blend with complete emotional responsibility to the task. She is matched every step of the way by Anton Berezin (as Karl), Bridget Costello (as Eva), Michaela Burger (as Rella), and Nelson Gardner (as Ignaz, Marcel, Gauleiter, Patent Attorney and others). As Driftwood’s gatekeepers, one senses their passion and total commitment throughout the show’s two-hour running time. 

Those who saw the show last year, will take note of small yet significant updates to the piece.  Making theatre is a process sometimes thought of as a living and evolving organism. Often, audience reactions play a key role in any kind of decision making, too. (Examples of shows which changed during the preview stage include 9 to 5, Titanic, and Wicked.)

Chapel Off Chapel is the perfect choice of venue, allowing audience members to immerse themselves up close and personal. A significant addition to Australia’s vast musical theatre landscape, Driftwood is playing for a strictly limited season until Saturday May 20.  

Images: James Terry

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