Brisbane Powerhouse Visy Theatre
July 23 – August 1 2015
Reviewed by Meredith Walker
Creating a new work can be both joy and challenge and both of these aspects are evident in the realisation of Stefanie Brooke Harper’s Slammed on stage following its release as a text for school study. As a resource, it is a work that promises to explore “the life and hard times of everyone you know” through examination of thought-provoking themes and contemporary social issues, which is, of course commendable in intent, for exposure brings understanding and there are few vehicles for understanding more effective than the theatre. And in this regard, the theatrical fulfilment of the show certainly delivers what it promises on the page and a whole lot more; this is the problem.
The story begins in a fictitious but familiar contemporary Australian high school with a classroom scene of teacher trying to engage her Year 10 class, clearly featuring students of varying interest levels, in study of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. This is one of many engaging schoolroom scenes, whose exaggerated authenticity produce some genuinely funny moments. These also serve to showcase a naturalism in dialogue and realness of connection with audience members. However, the story of Slammed is about more than just the students, with teachers refreshingly given backstories alongside those of the teenage characters. This allows opportunity to explore a multitude of social issues which, unfortunately, is ultimately to the show’s detriment, as indicated by the increasingly restless audience as the show’s duration approached the 2.5 hour mark.
By adding backstory, the play moves beyond dramatic familiarity into the tragedy of real people’s lives, however, this is not used sparingly so works against itself. Minor and unnecessary scenes (such as the provision of an Act Two divorce backstory to an insignificant character, from a narrative perspective) seem only to have been included to ensure coverage of a wide variety of teenage experiences and parenting styles and actually detract from overall cohesion. However, while some of the narrative threads are a little stereotypical in this regard, they are well-written and powerfully acted, meaning that any initial cliché is easily overlooked.
The cast is a large one, of varying experience and abilities. Chris Kellett anchors the ensemble in his contrasting parental roles, but features so infrequently that his talents seem wasted. And newcomer Dane Brady, as protagonist Jake Ryan, neglected by his father and abandoned by his mother, is authentic in his conveyance of sullen teenager, to the impairment of vocal projection and audience engagement when so many of his Act One lines are delivered with back to the audience and his poetry slam moment is sans gesture as enhancement of message.
In contrast, Daniel Hurst delivers a memorable performance as bullying victim David Lawson, particularly in his poetry slam, which is delivered with an entertaining rhythm that sets it apart from the others, even if its environmental focus is quite superfluous to the central narrative. And as genuine, well-meaning teacher Fiona Finlay, Gabriella Flowers gives a measured, nuanced and natural performance that captures the cadence central to her character’s demeanour.
Staging is simple and functional, allowing audiences to look thorough the walls of people’s lives to see that all are slammed in some way. This versatile use of the Visy Theatre space is of particular credit to the show’s creatives, given that the work was originally devised for a standard proscenium stage. However, with scenes established so effectively, the use of technology to announce locations and time of day seems tokenistic.
With its fusion of thought-provoking ideas and contemporary, edgy elements, Slammed has much to offer audiences. It is full of moments of truth and connection, making it an easily accessible piece for young people and non-theatre goers. And its passion in dealing with so many important social issues is to be applauded, even if, in its current cluttered form it serves as illustration of the truth of the cliché that less is more.