Other Desert Cities


Other Desert Cities

Black Swan Theatre Co & QTC 

QPAC Playhouse

10 August – 1 September 2013


Reviewed by Xanthe Coward


Christmas in sun-drenched Palm Springs: a desert tomb, populated by shrivelled mummies with tans. The Wyeth children are home for the holidays and conversation doesn’t flow easily: politics isn’t fit for table talk in a family as fractious as this. Neither is the war in the Middle East, nor the shadow of terrorism. But there’s one thing everyone wants to chime in on: troubled daughter Brooke has just finished her magnum opus, a tell-all memoir exposing a pivotal, tragic, ferociously-guarded family secret. As a quiet Christmas dissolves into feuding, there’s more than one meltdown brewing in the searing desert heat


This review has been a long time coming and I apologise for that. There’s a lot happening in my life away from the theatres at the moment that you probably don’t care about, and that’s fair enough. There’s no reason why you would. Of course you have your own stuff going on. I know. Suffice to say, it’s been really difficult to stop still long enough to get my thoughts together about the shows I’ve seen recently. This is always a busy time of year and I should be better at delegating by now.




My sister is writing a book. For years, as the eldest child in our family of writers, I’ve joked that whoever publishes the first book will have to take responsibility for the fallout that follows. We have such different versions of events. This is evidenced every single Christmas without fail, when somebody will bring up something form the past and somebody else will inevitably retort, “That’s not how it happened”.


Truth is created, made up of our memories and replayed over and over in our minds – and hearts – until we can’t actually recall what was real and what was imagined or experienced…


The Wyath family almost falls apart when the “truth” at the core of Brooke’s book is revealed, but she makes a decision that saves them all from the insufferable pain of public attention and the personal grief of a tragedy that has stayed hidden until now. This is brilliant writing, superb design, and there’s not an actor on this stage who puts a foot wrong.




I don’t mind Kate Cherry’s style. In case you weren’t already aware (if you’re new to the blog, well welcome!), she’s Black Swan Theatre Company’s Artistic Director and the director of this production. You will have seen her name here before (for her direction of Managing Carmen and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof), and this production has a vaguely similar feel to Cat, with regard to its immense set and the space within it, in which a family slowly suffocates. And wowsers! What a set! I want to live there, in that vast, open desert haven with its floor to ceiling glass and contained gas fireplace cum coffee table! Christine Smith has outdone herself! Likewise, Trent Suidgeest’s lighting design takes us through the desert’s day and night, and Tony Brumpton’s groovy soundtrack has us right there with the family.


Likened to Arthur Miller but in my mind not dissimilar to Tennessee Williams, playwright Jon Robin Baitz, has swiftly and neatly covered the politics of an entire era within one family’s affairs, and made his central character flare up like a Christmas Eve Catherine wheel at the main event – I’m talking about the firework not the torture device although the latter could be argued to a point –  spinning out of control and affecting everybody around them, until it dies its natural death at the feet of the people who once marvelled at its light.


Rebecca David lives and breathes her character, the writer, Brooke. She so embodies the woman that it’s almost a surprise to see her so relaxed and smiling after the show, upstairs on the Rooftop. But it’s always sort of odd and interesting to see the cast after the show, isn’t it? There’s always somebody in the audience who whispers too loudly, champagne flute in hand as the cast members are introduced during speeches,  “But he looked so tall on stage! I thought he’d be taller!” and “Oh, she’s really such a lovely person” as if she could not be because her character was not.




Brooke’s most volatile relationship is with her mother, who she believes is responsible for her misery, and thus forgets her happier younger years and also, the time her mother spent by her side during a severely depressive state. Her gamut of emotions is beautifully drawn. Janet Andrewartha depicts the matriarch, Polly, in blonde-bobbed, square-shouldered and stockinged Nancy Reagan/Stockard Channing style. Andrewartha is the standout here and by no coincidence (there are no coincidences), she has seen the unravelling of a family before, in Hotel Sorrento (Hit Productions), and when I walked away from Other Desert Cities, it was this play that came to my mind, with its similar threads and themes. (That’s my other reference every Christmas, that we have a Hotel Sorrento scenario on our hands, in our family, as soon as somebody publishes something).


“Why is it that children are allowed a sort of endless series of free passes in this life, you know…you all want to stay children forever, doing whatever mischief you can think of.” Polly Wyath


Robert Coleby and Conrad Coleby play father, Lyman, and son, Trip, and it’s interesting to note that cast members felt the real life relationship informed their family dynamics on stage…as you would expect. Trip is a secondary character, which we feel we could get to know a little better but there’s just no time, and there’s really no need; what we get from Coleby is just right. He and Polly’s sister, Silda (Vivienne Garrett), are vehicles to help us get to know Brooke, Polly and Lyman, around whom the plot revolves. Garrett’s characterisation is intriguing, and keeps us guessing, but Silda’s sister has her number and when it’s up we hear no more from her. Known for his television drama, including The West Wing, Alias and Brothers & Sisters, Jon Robin Baitz virtually kills off this character, to save confusion in the end! Her job here is done! I enjoyed Garrett’s dynamic performance.




This production has perfected the elements, and all must have hit their stride in their premier season in Perth because they are faultless here. The opening night audience in Brisbane reserve the usually over eager standing ovation, and instead, honour this cast with full, warm applause for three lengthy curtain calls. It is, after all, a rather sombre conclusion, leaving us to wonder…


Other Desert Cities closes in Brisbane on Sunday so get a ticket if you can, and be rewarded with the kind of slick, sophisticated, contemporary family drama that we usually stay home to see on the screen. More of this please, state theatre companies!



1 Response to “Other Desert Cities”

  1. 1 Robbie
    August 29, 2013 at 11:51 am

    As a theatre maker I can’t help but wonder what we’re offering audience members if we’re creating “the kind of slick, sophisticated, contemporary family drama that we usually stay home to see on the screen.” What makes it worth all the extra money and effort and annoyance (ticket price, parking cost, weather, stupid drivers, audience member’s big hair) to see a play that’s not quite as good as Mad Men and might go horribly wrong if an actor or techie screws up or some audience member has a horrible cough. To my mind theatre is inherently rough and dangerous. That is what we have to offer. It seems so strange to me when people work so hard to eliminate everything that makes theatre unique while trying to stick to this incredibly narrow version of what ‘story telling’ means.

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