It would be naive to think that playwright Wayne Tunks has not been fuelled with inspiration from the Cold Chisel song "Flame Trees" for his latest play of the same name, now showing at The Depot Theatre, Marrickville. I had made a link between the two as soon as I saw the play's title.
As with the song, Tunks' Flame Trees evokes small town drama and a nod to the glory days of adolescence before life changing events take place. The plot though, has not just been lifted straight from the song's lyrics - there is a heavy dose of deviation and poetic licence evidenced in the script. The loose connection between the song and play is, however, played up by Tunks. It would be silly of him not to do this given the song's resonance with Australian audiences of feelings associated with a hometown return.
The song is used as a lead in for the opening scene and then used in instrumental format between acts and even in scenes. At one point, Andy, the main male protagonist breaks out singing it a couple of times before we find out via a conversation between himself and ex-girlfriend Tess, that the song was a firm favourite of theirs. Andy though does see the irony of singing the song with Tess on her return home. Tess is the girl who is back in town after serving six years in jail for a fire that caused major destruction as well as killing her best friend.
Major credit should be given to Tunks for nailing the atmosphere surrounding every aspect of the production. The plot and dialogue capture the intensity of emotions that a dramatic incident can stir up in a close knit community. Small town grudges, secrets, rivalries, and regrets are strongly portrayed with a realism that can be recognised and related to instantly. Emotions fly. Verbal brawling is in spades. Numerous battle lines are drawn as past and present timelines and loyalties blur.
There is nothing contrived in the play. A simple set with the bare necessities in props only adds to the word drama we are privy to. The dialogue and the layers of angst, and bitterness ring true. Blood binds some of the characters, love and secrets bind the others, and it these ties that provide the vehicle for heated arguments. The ease in which conversations are snapshot make the play so powerful.
The acting goes hand in hand with the dialogue in providing an authentic slice of small town life. Each character is acted out in a believable manner. Nuances in body language, tone, unsaid words become as important a tool as the dialogue itself in relaying this tale of lost time and love and sacrifices. All the actors deserve recognition for their part in presenting a realistic moving production. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Tess Ashley (Isabel Dickson), Matt Sutton (Ryan Brown) and Nathan Ashley (Wayne Tunks). They especially showed a lot of compassion and understanding of human nature in the depiction of their characters.
A perfect mesh of acting and dialogue drew me into the individual stories each character wrestled with as well as the bigger picture of Tess's return to the town and the consequences that it brought to everyone. The climaxes were well built; they were almost an aside to the emotional relationship drama that unfolded at each step of the play that unravelled all the lies, and deception that had been kept hidden for so long.
I left the play feeling I had experienced one of the truest reflections of the complexity of growing up in an Australian small town. I cannot recommend this production of Wayne Tunks' Flame Trees enough. Go see it. On now until July. 2nd The Depot Theatre, Marrickville.
Production photos by Isobel Markus-Dunworth.