Emily Sheehan’s debut play Hell’s Canyon demonstrates a sure theatrical imagination, says Alison Croggon
We simply don’t value young people enough in Australian theatre. On the one hand, companies like Polyglot, Slingsby, Barking Gecko and others are producing first class – in some cases world-leading – work. On the other, youth arts is always the first on the chopping block when funding cuts come in.
This is because, consciously or unconsciously, it’s often not considered as ‘important” as real art: a strange disconnection that you see in literature as well. It’s an absurd prejudice, not least because young people are adult theatre’s future audiences, but also because it marginalises some very valuable work.
Perhaps because of this ghettoisation, Emily Sheehan’s first play Hell’s Canyon, now on at La Mama as part of their Melbourne Fringe program, isn’t signalled as a play for young people. But it is totally a young adult work, and demonstrates the virtues of the best of it. Hell’s Canyon has smart writing, vivid characters and a profound engagement with the complexities of being alive, things like love, grief and mortality.
The play’s already attracted notice – it won the Rodney Seaborn Playwrights’ Award, was shortlisted for the Patrick White Playwrights’ Award and had a successful season in Sydney. And it’s easy to see why.
Sheehan demonstrates an intuitive grasp of theatrical language and writes her characters with a sure ear so they ring emotionally true. 17-year-old Caitlin (Isabelle Ford) is running away and lassoes Oscar, two years’ younger than she is, (Conor Leach) into her plans. They haven’t spoken for six months when Caitlin texts him, provocatively asking him if he wants to have sex.
It begins with impeccably Australian realism – the two meet by a wheelie bin before pooling their resources, $15 lunch money and a stolen credit card, and checking into a cheap motel. As the stakes wind up, it begins to segue, Arthur-Miller-like, into surreal interior states: fantasy and traumatic to entwine into the present.
What’s most celebrated here is the depth of the friendship between these two complex characters, the strength that paradoxically emerges from their fragility. Caitlin copes with her despair through a variety of destructive behaviours – risky sex, self-harming, testing her friends. Oscar, on the other hand, is an introvert, possibly on the spectrum, who finds it hard to talk to people, still floundering in the wake of his brother’s suicide. They hurt each other deeply, but each also recognises why the other lashes out. And they are both smart and funny.
Ford and Leach are appealing actors who play the text truthfully, with the understatement necessary for both its humour and feeling. Nothing about their performances, or the production, patronises these characters.
Katie Cawthorne directs with admirable clarity, paying close attention to the contradictory currents running through the text, and the theatrical shifts are cleverly handled. The production team is good – Tyler Ray Hawkins’ simple set is given surprising life by Martin Kinnane’s lighting. La Mama’s temporary venue at Trades Hall is an excellent theatre space, perfect for this kind of chamber work. Recommended, not least because we’ll be hearing more from Emily Sheehan.
Hell’s Canyon is this month’s Witness Live Night. See it with us and talk it over afterwards! Details on this page.
Hell’s Canyon, by Emily Sheehan, directed by Katie Cawthorne. Set and costume design by Tyler Ray Hawkins, sound design by Kimmo Vennonen, lighting design by Martin Kinnane. Performed by Isabelle Ford and Conor Leach. La Mama Theatre at Trades Hall, Meeting Room 1, Cnr. Victoria & Lygon Streets, Carlton, until September 23. Bookings
Please note that Trades Hall is undergoing significant renovations and unfortunately is not an accessible venue for this performance.