November 10, 1992

Left-Over Lives

Diving for Pearls
by Katherine Thomson
State Theatre Company

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

There is much to admire about Diving for Pearls. Katherine Thomson’s play about the destruction of restructuring gets beyond the programmatic formulae of most current theatre dealing with contemporary issues. The cost of work to the working class in Australia has long been a theme in our naturalistic theatre- not least in Lawler’s The Summer of the Seventeeth Doll. But more recently the pace of industrial and social change has outstripped the theatre’s (let alone film’s) capacity to depict it.

Diving for Pearls succeeds because of its modesty of scope and the resolute way it deals with uncomfortable particulars . What makes today’s fiscal and industrial management so pernicious is its abstraction – ugly Pentagon euphemisms like downsizing and jaunty metaphors of the level playing field. This is the small-mindedness of microeconomics, the refusal to consider human cost. The extent to which whole national economies have been contorted to serve over-simplified sectional notions of market forces may well be seen as a kind of death cult, the swine fever of the late twentieth century. Never has the work ethic been less questioned and never has there been less work available to perform. How can it not be a swindle ? – “Diving for dirty old pennies,” says Barbara, after ending up back on the employment scrap heap, “When you think we could have been …diving for anything…pearls.”

Set in a coastal industrial city with a strong resemblance to Wollongong, Diving for Pearls introduces Den, a twenty-five year labourer in a plant about to be sold for scrap, his friend Barbara is re-training for what she hopes will be a new career in the hospitality industry. She has a daughter, Verge, restricted by cerebral palsy but tenaciously open-hearted. Den’s brother-in-law Ron is back in town believing his consultancy team are there to restructure when in fact it’s a meltdown. Hopes of improvement are kindled in all and then systematically crushed as the cynicism and deceit is revealed.

Performing in the Space the cast for State’s production is an experienced but uneven one. Matters are not made easier by Shaun Gurton’s arduous set – a central acting space with two raised areas at each end. The velodrome gradients seem to distract the performers as they repeatedly puff up the slopes. The sparseness of detail is effective though – two cinemascopic blue-lit screens providing, with Andrea Reinets’ soundscape, an enlarging natural environment while a damocles-like hydraulic hook and a wheelbarrow full of metal scrap suggest the workaday world.

Appropriately the emphasis is on the relationships- particularly between Den, played with affectionate detail by Simon Chilvers and Barbara energetically portrayed by Anne Phelan. The characters are interestingly drawn. Den, industrially passive all his life only gradually realises, despite Ron’s prompting, that big changes are afoot. Barbara, on the other recognises the situation but her efforts to adapt are thwarted and misplaced. Anne Phelan captures her spirited determination but Bronwyn Jones’ costumes, increasingly red and ludicrously brassy, militate against the performance.

Neither Peter Adams as Ron or Daphne Grey as Barbara’s chalk-and-cheese sister Marj, get to grips with their task. Adams is unvaryingly agitated while Daphne Grey lacks her usual focus to the point of seeming miscast. Claire Jones as Verge gives a beautifully poised performance. The physical detail is accurate and well-observed but is not an end in itself and never distracts from her exploration of Katherine Thomson’s rich and often comic text.

There are flat patches and occasional disconnections in the play but Diving for Pearls is both a strong text and a worthwhile production. It is a highpoint in a spotty year for State and a welcome new work from an able playwright. In its integrity, its thrifty presentation and aptness of theme it suggests ways in which theatre can more than just survive in these parlous times.

The Adelaide Review, No. 108, November, 1992, p.40

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