Blackbird – Sydney Fringe Festival

There’s no bells and whistles on Andrew Langcake’s recent production of  David Harrower’s Blackbird. Presented by Throwing Shade Theatre Co for the 2016 Sydney Fringe Festival, this powerful and provocative play explores all the moral complexity and emotional intensity of an underage relationship and its lasting consequences.

The play, inspired by the crimes of sex offender Toby Studebaker, centres on the meeting between Ray (William Jordan), a middle aged man, and Una (Eleanor Ryan), a young woman, fifteen years after he sexually abused her at the age of 12. In the small office room we follow their highs and lows as they both try and understand the other, reminiscing on the past and confronting the present.

Blackbird at the Sydney Fringe. Image Supplied.
Blackbird at the Sydney Fringe. Image Supplied.

Langcake achieves an understated but effective production of the 2006 winner of the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for Best New Play and 2007 winner of the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play. His direction strips the script to its bones, allowing the raw dialogue and intensity of the characters to emerge in the production without being overpowered by props, set or costume.

Langcake slowly reveals the duo’s past and present relationship through careful staging and movement within the space, enriching the dialogue with visual subtext. This is evident from the opening moments of the play as Una struts in confidently into the scene with Ray following timidly, checking for any stray co-workers that could listen in.

The simple but predictable costume choices worked well to establish the character’s roles, even occasionally used to enhance characterisation, symbolising Una’s insecurity as she unwraps and wraps her black coat; seductive and hostile in turn.

The makeshift theatre space is deftly managed by the production team, particularly producer Alexandra Voyage, despite being unconventionally set up in a concrete warehouse. It’s an unusual choice, but it helped the production feel raw and accessdible. In particular, the intimate theatre space allows for heightened moments of fervour, as when Una, in cathartic frustration, throws a chair across the room to land at the audience’s feet.

The minimalistic set enhanced the play’s realism and was practically used by the actors with plastic outdoor chairs and genuinely revolting rubbish strewn about the floor. The rubbish was also a beautifully crafted element of the play as Ray tries to clean up the office debris in an attempt to clean up his past, removing it from memory.

Lighting was rudimentary, aiming more to illuminate the actors and set, only creating any atmosphere during the blackout mid-production, shocking the audience as we empathise with Una’s fear when she calls out for Ray in a desperation.

Blackbird at the Sydney Fringe. Image Supplied.
Blackbird at the Sydney Fringe. Image Supplied.

Ryan’s performance of Una was powerful and rich with complexity as she  switched between the innocence and vulnerability of a young traumatised woman, to the fiery determination of a woman wanting both clarity and vengeance when confronting her tormentor.

Jordan’s Ray, conversely, felt a little overdone. Ray’s nervous whispers were overpowered by Jordan’s soft and breathy voice – his anxiety not mixing well with the actor’s need to be hard.  However, once Jordan settles into his character he delivers moving moments of internal conflict as he denies the stereotype of paedophile, which is scarily easy to sympathise with.

Grace Truman was beautiful as Ray’s daughter, providing the intimate innocence needed to contrast and highlight the heavy subject matter.

Though the Northern English accent enhances the authenticity of the script’s setting, the believability of it in this production is tainted as both actors slip in and out of the accent, particularly during long monologues.

Blackbird is able to maintain the original script’s power and intensity despite playing it safe with a conventional and budget-conscious production. Langcake’s achieves a simultaneously entertaining and thought-provoking production, providing refreshing and complex perspectives on both sex offenders and their victims.

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