Toy Symphony

Natasha Ciesielski
21st Apr 2024

The Loading Dock Theatre season has kicked off with its first production for 2024, Toy Symphony.

Toy Symphony was written by Australian author and playwright Michael Gow. Australian students may recall studying Gow’s play Away, which earned him the reputation of one of Australia’s most successful playwrights. In 2007, Toy Symphony premiered at Sydney's Belvoir St Theatre, starring Richard Roxburgh. It was awarded Best New Australian Work at the 2008 Helpmann Awards, and also nominated for Best Play. The multi-award winning production also won four Sydney Theatre Awards including Best Mainstage Production. Now it’s returning to Sydney led by boutique production company Ad Astra.

The play revolves around Roland Henning undergoing therapy in hope to cure his writer's block. It shifts back and forward, between the present day therapy sessions, Roland’s early career and his childhood, plus it contains elements of magical realism.

Gregory J Wilken plays Roland and delivers a standout performance of a writer in turmoil. Roland is a complex character who sometimes uses words in a torrent. He rambles as he denies his blockage but agrees to delve into his past with therapist Nina (played by Wendi Lanham). The play is an bold exploration into the process of writing and creativity. What has caused the writing paralysis? As Roland shares his memories with Nina, wandering through his brain with a smoking torch, Toy Symphony shows us how early experiences can impact and shape our later selves.

There are some wonderful characters in Toy Symphony, Bernadette Pryde (nominated for a Matilda Award for her role) does a brilliant job playing Roland's primary school teacher. Mrs Walkham is the teacher every student wants: kind, considerate and brings joy to learning. Pryde will have audience members thinking back to their favourite teacher as she enunciates and spells out words for her students.

While class 5A Mrs Walkham is a delight; Toy Symphony has a number of less desirable characters, especially enraged headmaster Mr Devlin (played by John Michael Narres) and horrible bully Steve Goodin (played by Samuel Ashfield Webb). Many of the cast members take on multiple roles including Webb who later plays Roland’s drug dealer. A talent to keep an eye on, Webb shifts characters and emotions easily from cruel, teasing, taunting and berating to cowering and desperate.

Gow is a great writer, especially as he shifts the power dynamics. He builds audience empathy for Roland, sharing his history and years of school trauma. Then when Roland becomes bleak and bitter, he takes on a different persona using aggressive manipulative tactics. Through it all Wilken commands the stage and shows incredible emotional range playing both sides of the protagonist - not to mention switching from age 5 to a middle-aged man.

The strong visual language of the play is accentuated through visceral experience with the sound and lighting design. This was especially effective with the sound of a pencil (when Roland first starts writing) and references to the bushfires.

Set design was simple but given Toy Symphony is a character-focused play, one could argue elaborate staging isn’t necessary. The retro suitcases are a smart reference to Roland’s emotional baggage and the props of old dial-up telephones and hard case suitcases piled across the stage help date Roland’s earlier memories to the 1960’s.

Led by Director Michelle Carey there’s a lot going on in this intense production. Toy Symphony explores bullying, substance abuse, death and grief. At times this play is uncomfortable to watch but it’s also a compelling look at creativity and human response.

Three and a half stars.

Loading Dock Theatre is located in the new Qtopia venue.

Running for two hours and 30 minutes including interval Toy Symphony is playing now at The Loading Dock Theatre till the 27th April.

For tickets visit >>

Toy Symphony - Image Credit Bojan Bozic