September 01, 1996

Pressing Issues

The Torrents
by Oriel Gray

State Theatre
The Playhouse

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

The Torrents stands in our theatre history as a road not taken. Or a twin separated at birth and raised in obscurity. As the co-winner of the 1955 Playwrights’ Advisory Board competition, Oriel Gray might have expected greater recognition for her work as playwright with the New Theatre in Sydney. In fact The Torrents was only staged twice -by New Theatre in Adelaide in 1956 and in Melbourne in 1958- and only now has it seen a professional production. Instead, it was the other winner in the playwrights’ competition in 1955, a play by Ray Lawler entitled Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, which achieved the distinction and recognition.

It has taken forty years to rectify matters but State Theatre’s Australian Playhouse has shown that there is room at the top for both Ray Lawler and Oriel Gray, as the company’s double programming for September indicates. Although, it should be noted two more different plays would be hard to imagine.

The Torrents is a romantic comedy with a feminist spin. Set in the 1890s in the goldrush town of Koolgalla it focuses on the newspaper office of proprietor Rufus Torrent and his son Ben. When an editorial assistant is required it is agreed that the best letter of application is that from J.G. Milford. Only Ben knows that the “J” stands for Jenny.

Gray’s perky plot has Jenny introducing the cause of the New Woman against the grumblings of printing staff and the local burgher board of directors. When Kingsley Myers proposes a scheme for an irrigation system to renew the land exhausted by mining it is rejected by all but his chum Ben who writes an editorial in support. It takes the pluck of our Jenny to actually publish the editorial and make a statement for the town -and the Torrents-to think about. Despite its Banjo Paterson setting the play has some of the verve of screwball comedy about it. You could imagine it being played by Hepburn and Tracy.

Mary Moore’s set creates marvellous possibilities. It is a huge airy office with a three tier printing press spilling forth a verandah of newsprint. It is like Elmer Rice’s Adding Machine- enhanced by rhyming curved windows and spiral staircases, yet still literal enough to accommodate the paraphernalia of a newspaper office. There is a stylish predominance of grey and lavender accents in the 1890s costume while Ben, the evolving man, wears twenties suits and Jenny, the New Woman, is dressed in a bright red sweater and fifties skirt.

Director Marion Potts has not trusted the boldness of the design to let the play unfold either its romantic subplot -between Kingsley and Ben’s dutiful fiancee Gwynn – nor its tougher admonitions for editorial courage and personal integrity. There is clarity, though, in Paula Arundell’s unaffected performance as Jenny. She has a directness and assurance which suits the role and the fact that she is of Zambian descent gives an additional invigoration to the equity theme in the play. John Adam is also convincing as Ben Torrent, the son in the shadow of a strong-willed father.

Elsewhere the performances are much less satisfactory. Peter Finlay, usually very able, is miscast as Rufus. He struggles to create the necessary dominance in the role and his Irish accent spends much of the night in Cardiff. As Kingsley and Gwynne, Duncan Young and Marlo Grocke resort needlessly to a drippy kind of caricature when a simple straight-forwardness would do. Geoff Revell, Edwin Hodgman and Mark Saturno reduce the printers to a Dad’s army of rude mechanicals when a mix of comedy and low key naturalism would have served. Don Barker, imposing as the influential John Manson, could also have taken his performance down a cog or two.

Again a State revival has fallen short because of unfocused and unintegrated direction. One of the things that we learned from the National Theatre’s An Inspector Calls is that the astute combination of naturalistic acting and expressionistic design can be theatrically illuminating. Mary Moore’s set, Ian McDonald’s witty soundtrack and Nigel Leving’s intelligent lighting provide a splendid framework and Oriel Gray’s play, earnest and contrived though it is, also has plenty of current resonance. The Torrents should have been played for the courage of its convictions- not kept at arm’s length by actors’ rhetoric.

The Adelaide Review, September 1996.

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