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  • Theatre, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Two naked young men in shadow
Photograph: Supplied

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

An affecting coming-of-age play at Melbourne Fringe sings an elegy to small-town queer experience

Benjamin Nichol's new one-man show begins, like its mythological namesake, with a figure sitting on a cliff face, watching the ocean. A story of desire and entrapment, part love story, part coming-of-age tale, Sirens concerns a small-town larrikin, Eden (played by the playwright) navigating the contemporary queer dating scene and regional family life. Over the course of a tightly wound 60 minutes, Nichol offers a portrait of queer experience in regional Australia that is perceptive and deeply affecting. 

We’re in an unnamed Australian coastal town lovingly described as the amalgamation of six servos, four milkbars and 11 Christmas wreaths. It’s a 36-degree day when we first meet Eden, a brash 22 year-old once hailed as the ‘soprano prodigy’ of the local church choir. He’s writing his name in the truck window of an online hook-up. (If he has a siren song, it’s expressed in quiet moments of intimacy like this – a name traced in a foggy window, a shared Spotify playlist or a karaoke song sung to the back corner.) In hook-up after hook-up, Eden seeks out ever more innovative, and at times destructive, ways to connect. He is a hopeless romantic hiding behind machismo, and it’s not long before the heart on his sleeve is revealed. 

Nichol received well-deserved acclaim for his play Kerosene in 2021, a one-woman monologue that examined violence with a similar interest in ideas of connection and alienation. With Sirens, he doubles down on these themes with confidence and nuance, offering another representation of regional Australia that is well-observed and tightly executed.

His writing brings characters to life with carefully chosen details and lovingly rendered tableaux. At one point Eden characterises his father in one image – that of him rewatching the 1996 Hawthorn v Geelong with screaming passion. It helps that Nichol’s performance switches masterfully between differing characters. Meanwhile, Harrie Hogan’s lighting design signals each change with subtle shifts in colour and intensity that effectively construct Eden’s world within the confines of the Trades Hall Meeting Room. 

In post-plebiscite regional Australia, prejudice takes new forms and acceptance has covert qualifications. Eden is treated like the token gay man by a church he no longer attends, considered one of the good ones by his father, and quietly ignored by his mother. When he meets David, a thirty-something drag queen from the city, on Grindr, he is patronised for his regional accent and attitude. David has returned to town to care for his dying Father (Eden’s former English teacher). Despite their differences, Eden and David begin to connect over their shared background, Joni Mitchell, and sex.

As romance blossoms, the Meeting Room at Trades Hall is transformed. Director Liv Satchell showcases Nichol’s control of his body in impressionistic sequences that evoke the euphoria of sexual intimacy. Hogan’s lighting design moves with Nichol, colouring sensual moments in a blue-tinge that takes on an almost oceanic character as it progressively brightens and dulls. Connor Ross’s piano-heavy sound design thrums with an emotional resonance that beautifully represents Eden plunging deeper into his connection with David. 

But as it nears its conclusion, Sirens begins to rush. There is a sense that Nichol has trimmed these scenes to enable time for the show’s conclusion: an earnest rendition of Nick Cave’s ‘Into My Arms’ sung all the way through. Though his voice is beautiful, it cannot replicate the vulnerability that his dialogue is able to evoke so effectively. The emotional payoff of this final number is consequently muted. 

Despite the misstep, Nichol received a standing ovation at the performance we attended, underscored by a chorus of sniffles and rustling tissues. Sirens evokes the complexities of connecting to others and connecting to home in a way that marks it as one of the best on offer at Fringe this year – a siren call worth answering.

Written by
Guy Webster


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