May 10, 2021

Private Lives

by Emily Steel
A State Theatre South Australia
and Country Arts SA Production.
Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre.
May 7. Until May 15.

“The town in Euphoria is not based on any one town,” playwright Emily Steel writes in the program notes for State Theatre’s terrific new production, “but has aspects of many.” When travelling all over regional South Australia researching the play and interviewing locals, Steel asked people what was the best thing about life in their town. The answer: “Well, everyone knows each other so there’s always someone there if you need help.” And the worst thing ? – “Everyone knows each other, so it’s hard to have privacy.”

Steel observes that this “double edged sword of community life became the core of the play.” Commissioned by Country Arts SA, Euphoria explores the experiences faced by people with mental health issues in regional towns where everyone knows and, often, no-one wants to know. Where, even when they want to help, they don’t know what to say, or do.

The play revolves around two main characters – Meg Riley (Ashton Malcolm) and Ethan Thomas (James Smith) but gives voice to a dozen or so more. Meg is the primary school teacher, married to Nick, the local mechanic. She is writing a grant application to stage a festival in the town. Someone has helpfully suggested the name “Euphoria”. Meg is getting wound up planning and organising, she suffers from mood swings. Her doctor has prescribed meds but she hates the glassy side effects so is trying to manage without them.

Ethan has just finished Year 12 and is supposed to be heading for uni in Adelaide. But he has delayed that and things are spinning out. He has a job as a waiter in a trendy new restaurant but sabotages it and quits when his mate Jimmy gets him pissed on the job. Meg persuades Nick to take him on, helping out in the mechanic’s garage. Ethan is the son of Steve Thomas, the well-liked local who, several years earlier, died in an accident nobody wants to talk about.

Director Nescha Jelk has expertly managed the pace and exposition in Emily Steel’s fast moving script. There are many points of view to be acknowledged and heard – and only two actors to present them.

Meg Wilson’s compact and very portable set (pleasingly lit with tints and buttery warmth by Nic Mollison) features the wood-panelled wall of a familiar community hall, complete with sliding doors, a serving hatch, a pinboard for notices, and space for chairs set out for meetings. As more is revealed, the doors widen and fold back for the final scenes.

Before the play opens, Andrew Howard’s soundscape evokes the easy pace of small town life – birds chirping, dogs barking, the absence of haste and clutter. His musical interludes, featuring guitar, fuzzy synths and chiming piano, bring soothing harmonics between sometimes fraught stage encounters.

And then there are the crisp, vivid performances. Ashton Malcolm and James Smith are both excellent, maintaining astonishing speed and precision as they not only play their primary roles as Meg and Ethan but an array of minor parts as well.

Malcolm’s Meg is cheerful, kind, earnest and always busy. The stress of her hypermania is never far from the surface and her exchanges with her concerned husband and sometimes sniping co-workers reveal, as the playwright intends, the double life of those prone to mental illness.

As Ethan, James Smith is a ball of energy, evasion, pent-up anger and sadness. In his hoodie and sneakers he is the typical teenage kid, mixing bravado with hopefulness and surly resentment. His relationship with Nick, the mechanic and father-figure, is well drawn – even as Smith plays both characters.

Steel’s device of having the actors improvising extra roles brings energy and freshness to the play. Smith, as Ethan’s deadpan mother serving at the Post Office, and Malcolm, as the bratty self-satisfied Jimmy, are droll examples.

Euphoria is a play devised to tour country districts to raise awareness about mental problems as they occur (and are concealed) in everyday life. Steel’s lively script carries the message with wit and warmth and while sometimes the comedy is broad, the effect is poignant and telling. Audiences around the state will not only be drawn to its themes, they will also be captured by its stagecraft. This Euphoria is a buzz.
May 10, 2021.

1 Comment »

  1. Wonderful, Murray. Very much makes me want to see the production. Done with your usual, incisive, crisply informative and generous insight!

    Comment by Arthur Ranford — May 27, 2021 @ 10:05 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment