Ursula Yovich stars in Katherine Thomson's Australian classic about reinventing oneself
Regional Australian cities are facing a grim challenge: reinvent or die. As manufacturing plants move offshore and factories shut down, these cities run the risk of being left in the dust. This might make you think of Newcastle’s sharp downturn after the closing of the steelworks in 1999 and its journey to become a tourist destination in its own right – but before Newcastle, there was Wollongong: the inspiration behind Katherine Thomson’s Diving for Pearls.
Written in 1991, the play feels startlingly fresh and relevant in this revival production by Darren Yap. Its core anxiety – that security, comfort and growth for unskilled workers is disappearing – is still a live issue. In the 1980s (when Thomson’s play is set) it was the steel industry, but now it’s the car manufacturing industry, which won’t exist in Australia after next year. And Thomson’s characters remain sharp and soulful embodiments of Australian inequity.
Barbara (Ursula Yovich) has split from her husband and is living in a boarding house until she gets her life back on track. Old flame Den (Steve Rodgers) comes back into her life just as she finds a spot of hope on the horizon: a new international resort under construction by the beach. Barbara intuits that it will attract a different class of people – a wealthier class – and she could be buoyed by their affluence into new status. She asks Den, who took a temporary job at the steelworks more than 20 years ago and then never left, to pay for a soft-skills course she thinks will give her a competitive advantage at the hotel. Rodgers’ good-natured Den, with stars in his eyes, agrees.
It’s not just about a job – Barbara is on a hunt for dignity and respect: “Everywhere I’ve ever worked,” she says, “They check your bag when you leave for the day. They wouldn’t do that there.” With Yovich in the role, you can’t help but root for Barb; she seems to glow with ambition – and when she is angry or bitter she seems lit on fire.
There are, however, some complications for Barbara. Den’s brother in law Ron (Jack Finsterer) has returned to town with a degree and a corporate contract to conduct an audit on the steel mill, and it soon becomes clear that new efficiency standards aren’t going to save the place. And Barbara’s daughter Verge (Ebony Vagulans) has escaped her life of sheltered workshops and Matron to be with her mother full-time, showing up on her doorstep and refusing to leave.
If you wanted to draw a line demarcating the blue and white collar world, you might ask: is the bistro in a Leagues Club a proper restaurant? Barbara says yes; her sister Marj (a deliciously prim and self-edited Michelle Doake) says most assuredly not. It’s these details that prove Thomson has an excellent ear for regional city lifestyles and their particular tensions. It captures the constant negotiation of the working class: which use of hard-earned money is the right one when there’s no money to waste? Is it a hostessing course? Is it having a baby? Is it fixing up an old house?
Yap possesses the same affinity for these characters as Thomson; his production is full-hearted but clear-eyed and it doesn’t shy away from long regional vowels or ugly emotional battles. Barbara is constantly boxed-in, rebuffed and challenged, but thanks to Yap, when she responds abrasively and unpleasantly, we understand exactly why; he finds each of the hundred tiny cuts to her dignity she must endure and brings them to the fore. It’s the same with Den; he doesn’t catch on to the precarious nature of his job and housing until well after we do, but every time he misses a hint, we flinch for him; when he finally has to face these truths, it’s gripping.
Diving for Pearls is blessedly unsentimental, but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of tenderness. Den (to whom Rodgers brings an endearing shyness) and well-meaning Verge form a sweet and surprising bond, and newcomer Vagulans’ portrayal of Verge’s unspecified disability is sensitive and considered (though it’s a missed opportunity to have an actor with a disability onstage).
Across the cast, there are stumbles and faults over the lines, but those are minor issues that probably won’t last the week; these performances will only grow stronger and more assured as the run continues.
James Browne’s hand-cranked set ensures that the effects of manual labour are visible beyond the steelworks; you feel it even in the home and outside in the town, and it’s a smart solution to the potential problems of staging a multi-location script in an intimate theatre like the Stables. His costumes are thoughtful and period-appropriate. Benjamin Brockman’s lighting is just as thoughtful, and it works in tandem with Max Lambert and Roger Lock’s compositions and sound to place us in the right location, as well as conveying mood and growing tension.
This play is a classic for a reason: it captures a truth of regional struggle and treats it with respect and concern. It’s a play for anyone with a social conscience: it might make you want to join a union or visit your hometown or call your family; it will absolutely make you care about problems that are not your own.