November 01, 1991

Sewing Discontent

by P.P. Cranney
Junction Theatre Company

Offshore, the latest from Junction and the old firm of Cranney and Crowhurst, is another in the Art and Working Life series. This time, though, there is a shift of focus from the Australian workplace to the little known phenomenon of the Export Processing Zone. EPZs are found throughout Asia and the Pacific Rim. Hong Kong, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and The Philippines all have them. There have also been investigations of similar operations working out of Darwin.

In the time-dishonoured tradition of the Victorian sweatshop, foreign companies, with the active collusion of local governments and authorities, use the auspices of the EPZ to exploit labour, cut costs and produce goods, especially garments, for sale in their home markets.

Offshore uses a heavy brush to describe the realities of an EPZ in a country very like the Philippines. A young woman named Zenith has come to live in the barbed wire enclosures of the Zone and is employed to make jeans for the aptly named Mamcorp, and Australian company run by Vince Mammon. The Mammon operations have shut up shop in Australia in search of cheap, regulation-free, union-free manufacturing offshore. Of course, there are complications -Vince’s wife Gina starts to recognize the barbarities of the situation and Zenith, village innocent though she is, decides it is time to organise a union.

Writer Pat Cranney and director Geoff Crowhurst have opted for a strong simple cautionary tale, subtle as a nightstick but with a kind of mini-series zing about it. The emotional register is broad but the impact is real enough and the text works because Cranney is not·afraid to carry enough information to give us something to get agitated about.

Curtis Weiss has created a colourfully daubed, almost kidney-shaped acting space with a bamboo and scrim perimeter. Overall, the interior of the theatre looks rather like an Edwardian public building which has been unconvincingly covered with bamboo and scrim. But with the use of slides of EPZs in action and the pace of the performance itself, these approximations tend not to matter.

As Zenith, Valerie Berry gives a strong if earnest performance which contributes much to the play’s success. Old hands Anna Linarello and Syd Brisbane give sturdy accounts of Gina and Vince Mammon -Aussie versions of the Bickersons. Brisbane is asked to do a bit much high-stress emoting into the cell phone but he copes all the same. Linarello, doubling as Gina and Nadi, the factory worker turned bar girl, effectively signals two versions of gender oppression. Betty Sumner Lovett is valiant in her six acting tasks but, is stretched beyond her capacity. She is a hearty landlady all the same, and a convincing factory tyrant.

With Offshore, director Geoff Crowhurst has created a brisk work, enhanced by Ian Farr’s eclectic music and honest, lively performances. The dastardly capitalist gets his and a clear and rousing lesson is had by all. I’m not sure about the Deus ex volcano ending though. Apart from the sub- Godzilla red lights and smoke, it is also too much too late. Pat Cranney can trust his script to get us thinking. We don’t need the Christadelphian apocalypse as well.

Nonetheless, Offshore succeeds in identifying and dramatising a pernicious practice. In fact, it’s enough to make you go home and read the labels on your jeans.

“Sewing Discontent”, The Adelaide Review, No.94, November, 1991, p.36.

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