By Darby Turnbull
120 minutes, 22 scenes, many dense monologues with no interval are a big ask of an audience, not to mention the creatives! A production featuring a company very fine actors and creatives working to the best of their abilities has the potential to be a transporting, enriching experience if you can surrender to it. I must confess I could not, my resistance to the material (Andrew Bovell’s modern classic, I hadn’t previously engaged with) leaving myself open to cynicism, frustration and often boredom.
Greg Clarke’s imposing set; white panels structured in the shape of Uluru (nee Ayers Rock) that function as a domestic backdrop is a savvy encapsulation of Andrew Bovell and Iron Lung’s baffling lack of engagement with material that purports to have weighty themes. Transgenerational family trauma against the backdrop of increasing climate disaster but ultimately feels hollow and insular. Uluru, a sacred landmark for the First Nations people of this country being quite literally used as a platform for the interpersonal dramas and catharsis of a white middle class family. With a bit more introspection this could, at a stretch, be a canny commentary on the complete lack of self-awareness the colonisers, tourists and settlers apply when engaging with indigenous land. But given Bovell’s tendency to not regurgitate his themes and his characters speak in very literal terms; outlining their motives in unambiguous prose; I don’t think this is his intention. Given a major contributing factor to the escalating climate catastrophes that Bovell uses as set dressing are unregulated globalisation, capitalism, colonisation; to not even acknowledge much less represent the major causalities of white supremacist greed undermines his premise to a souring degree. The use of sacred spaces for White self- actualisation is chilling, whether here of the climax of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert Musical (the film actually refrained from filming there at the request of the community). For a play written in 2007 and performed in 2023 it’s a glaring erasure, it might not be his place or inclination to examine it within his text in a way that does it justice, but did nobody consider the implications?
Bovell’s text encompasses 4 generations from the 60’s to 2039 (that feels depressingly close). Drawing ironic, and dark parallels between various members of the York/Law/Price families and the legacies of trauma, abandonment and disconnect. Briony Dunn’s production features some gorgeous set pieces as the actors representing various members of the family co exist within the space together. For me the most powerful moments of the production are when the characters aren’t speaking.
Francis Greenslade delivery of the opening speech is incredibly moving, as Gabriel York anticipates the impending reunion with his son at what is possibly the end of the world and is shaken by a fish (thought to be long extinct) falling from the sky. Greenslade is masterful at conveying the melancholy of a mediocre man’s isolation and encompassing regret. The first ten minutes are utterly captivating as her offers a masterclass in perfectly timed, emotionally pitched soliloquy. Shifting back in time he’s no less compelling as Gabriel’s British ancestor Henry Law imbuing him bumbling good humour and ultimately pathetic menace as the sins that will taint his family for nearly a century emerge.
As Henry’s son, Gabriel Darcy Kent finds increasing layers in the intense young man burdened with the mystery of his father’s disappearance and aloof mother. He brings a bashful charm reminiscent of a young Hugh Grant that’s initially endearing but gives way to arrogant solipsism especially in his interactions with women. Lucy Chaix as his eventual love interest Gabrielle (yes, they share a name) does her best with a part that doesn’t ask much more of her other than to be a certain class of man’s fantasy woman. Her hard-won self-preservation after a series of devastating losses giving way to tentative hope of an escape. But it doesn’t help that her character is a flatly written archetype; the aloof, damaged woman whose walls are brought down by a sensitive young man and of course he gets to be her first sexual experience. There are some vague attempts to give her dimensionality but, like most of the other women she has to react while the men monologue around her. Heather Bolton, as the elder Gabrielle gives a magnificent portrait of the rage and fear of reliving loss whilst losing herself to encroaching dementia and a lifetime of disappointment. Chris Connelly as her eventual husband, Joe, gives an empathetic embodiment as the ‘nice bloke’ who had to contend with a lifetime under the spectre of her ‘great love’ (well mate, that’s on you when you meet your wife saving her from a car accident that killed her boyfriend in front of her when she’s pregnant with his child). Connelly sustains a lovely balance of affable good humour mixed with pitiful rage.
Margaret Mills as Elizabeth, Gabriel’s distant mother is as always superb as the tightly wound, brittle, wry woman beyond his reach. Her deadpan delivery of lines like ‘you know nostalgia bores me’ are acidic delights but it’s in her moments of grasping for words that are either beyond her reach or inclination to say that her performance reaches its most sublime moments of pathos.
As her younger self, Esther Van Doornum (Beth never loses her penchant for high waisted pants and burgundy blouses) provides some tantalising physical and vocal insights into the woman she becomes but imbues her with brusque, intellectual rigour that she retains even when her joy is dulled by the weight of life.
Some of the most compelling moments are when these two actresses are just stationary on stage in painful reflection. It’s a shame Bovell’s dialogue doesn’t allow the audience or the actresses enough latitude to convey the subtext of the choices they make instead of having to give increasingly leaden exposition.
Nonetheless under Dunn’s direction they manage to overcome some of the limitations of the text with elegant staging and insightful physical choices that add some much-needed momentum to the narrative.
The disparity between the characters is increasingly frustrating when the men are increasingly planted centre stage to wax poetic while they watch and occasionally intercede with some thematic observation of their own but they’re nowhere near the majesty Bovell gives his male characters.
The production is universally stunning; Betty Auhl’s multi decade costumes feel specific and lived in without any ostentatious ‘look it’s this era!’ touches. At the very least she deserves an award for dressing a red-haired actress in pink and not having it clash! Clare Springett’s original designs, recreated by Niklas Pajanti are suitably epic and visually stunning as befits a text about the wonders of the space surrounding you. Darrin Verhagen’s sound viscerally encapsulates the increasing climate anxieties with different levels of torrential rain and other elements as well as some thrilling orchestrations.
After having to be rescheduled three times since 2020 Iron Lung is to be commended for finally bringing this piece to the stage, once again bringing together some of our theatre’s most accomplished and exciting creatives. I know When the rain stops falling has the ability to move and even inspire; it clearly has for this company, otherwise it wouldn’t be so consistently produced. I think it aims for catharsis in its depiction of climate anxiety but doesn’t explore it. There’s aspirations to a sprawling family epic but it’s very dependant on an audience’s ability to find them compelling. Cosmic coincidences don’t elicit gasps they just feel like histrionic plot points. The constant repetitive erudition doesn’t always land. Though I concede to an excellent pay off to the oft repeated phrase ‘well at least we’re not in Bangladesh’. The indications that we’ve brought our current climate disasters on ourselves through denial and complacency are strong but there’s a failure to explore them on a more cathartic level. To me its aims towards universality are let down by some frequent lapses in insight and ability to interrogate those limitations in pursuit of more grounded, fulfilling drama.
Images: Lach;an Woods