THEATRE REVIEW: The Torrents is a remarkable revival of an underrated classic
There was, among many, a standout moment in which the biting humour colouring the 1955 play The Torrents clung with notes of sadness as I watched Black Swan State Theatre Company’s production of this grossly overlooked Australian play unfold. It occurs during a scene in which the protagonist of the play, brilliant journalist J.G (note “the ‘J’ stands for Jenny”) Milford is questioned by the only other female character in the story-- a more traditionally feminine, ribbon-clad-hat donning Gwynne (Emily Rose Brennan) – as to just how she is able to pursue her career in an office full of men, in a male’s role. The brilliant Celia Pacquola, who plays Jenny, delivers this moment with impeccable timing and tone. “Would you like to know a secret? I’m bloody good at it.”
The audience erupts into laughter because of course, Jenny is blunt, and blunt is unexpected from the mouth of an upper-middle class woman in 1890s Australia. So is her career—and herein lies the sadness to which I was alluding. Of course, it should be a given that a woman can pursue something she is ‘bloody good at’. Oriel Gray wrote The Torrents in 1955, less than seven decades after the events of the play, at a time when the world was on the cusp of second-wave feminism. This play is both a demanding critique and telling reflection of the largely male-dominated world and writing industry she was immersed in, and perhaps brings to light part of a contributing factor as to why this compelling work has remained largely forgotten for the past 60 years, in contrast to Ray Lawler’s acclaimed Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, written in the same year.
As far as revivals go (there has only been one other run of the play some twenty years ago in Adelaide), Black Swan well and truly did the 1955 Playwright Advisory Board-winning work justice. A story not only of gender politics in the workplace but of sustainability and commercialisation barring truth in the media, the immaculate design elements of the production bring a juxtaposition of old and new that speaks to the audience in a familiar tongue, with enough alluring time-travel-coated mysticism to make these seemingly timeless debates digestible.
(Images by Philip Gostelow)
The performances were captivating and oozing with chemistry: from the visionary Kingsley (Luke Carroll) and impassioned Ben Torrent (Gareth Davies) with their youthful flair, the hilarious, long-winded Christy (Geoff Kelso), eager young Bernie (Rob Johnson) and Scotsman Jock McDonald (Sam Longley) with their office antics, the commanding Rufus Torrent (Tony Cogin) and loud, assertive John Manson (Steve Rodgers) calling the shots to the ever-evolving Gwynne (Brennan) and quick-witted, capable lead Jenny Milford (Pacquola). It is only fitting that the play was guided by extraordinarily female director Clare Watson.
It is clear that as much as BSSTC’s run of The Torrents is about bringing to light the play itself, it is just as much about resurfacing within the forgotten trenches time the literary tour-de-force that was Oriel Gray. Lighting up the stage at the beginning and end of the performance was a large sign spelling out her name in fluorescent letters, given a very deserved introduction by comedy queen Pacquola in honour of opening night. The inclusion of Oriel’s family within the process of production was also touching, with her son delivering a lovely speech at the commencement of the night. To close this review, I present to you a quote of his: “History cannot be rewritten, but it can be redeemed.” Storytelling is perhaps the most powerful way of doing this. Oriel would be proud.