An unflinching look at homophobic violence in 1980s Australia leaves uncomfortable questions
There’s no shortage of plays written about gay men being isolated and persecuted as a result of homophobia during the rise of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. But as with many dark chapters from Australian history, there are shocking stories that are largely untold. Playwright Lachlan Philpott turns his attention to one of these in his new play, Lost Boys.
Between the late 1970s and early ‘90s, 80 men were murdered while looking for sex with other men in coastal Sydney parks. They were viciously attacked, beaten, and in many instances pushed off cliffs to their deaths. Many of these cases have gone unsolved; police had little interest in investigating violent crimes against men who were breaking the law (homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1984). But in recent years several of their cases have been reopened
Philpott’s play isn’t really the story of these men, but it’s an incisive examination of the xenophobia and violence lying just under the surface of Australia’s apparently fair and equal society.
The first act takes place in the late 1980s and follows Cy (Jackson Davis), a high school student who appears to the world like any all-Aussie ‘80s surfer teen. His mother (Jodie Le Vesconte) knows her son is a member of a gang, but she doesn’t think the trouble he gets up to is too serious. What she doesn’t know is that Cy and his younger brother (Lincoln Vickery) have been “rolling poofs” late at night, in the belief that they’re protecting their community from the sickness these men are spreading.
The second act is in mid-2017, when Cy (now played by Ben Pfieffer) and his high school sweetheart, Jill (played by Jane Phegan), have grown up and had two kids of their own – one of whom wants to convince her parents to vote “yes” in the same-sex marriage postal survey. It’s been about 20 years since the police last came looking for Cy, but they couldn’t find any evidence connecting him to his crimes. Now they’re sniffing around again, and Cy and Jill are terrified. It’s clear the past they thought they left behind is still living under their skin.
You might assume the “lost boys” of the title are the men who went missing – the bodies of around half the men killed were never found – but it’s just as likely that it refers to the disaffected young people who committed these assaults and murders.
Philpott isn’t examining the lives of the victims (they aren’t the ones who need to be put under the microscope) but the perpetrators. What he finds is a legacy of hate and a fiercely territorial mindset, all fostered by a patriarchal society. While Australia mightn’t have quite the same problem with homophobia as it did several decades ago – and younger generations might be enlightened in ways that their parents weren’t – the ugliness underpinning that hatred is still present.
It’s a challenging work in several ways. Firstly, the violence and violent language that it employs is often unsettling. But it’s also difficult to sit alongside this protagonist, who is, despite all the colours and sympathetic complexities with which Philpott has painted him, a hate-filled murderer. You might catch yourself rooting for him in a couple of moments, but overwhelmingly you want him caught and brought to justice.
Director Leland Kean gives Philpott’s play an appropriately epic sweep with Katja Handt’s imposing set and Mic Gruchy’s projections conjuring up Sydney’s beaches perfectly. There are some parts that could be played more intimately, but the cast draws you in. Jane Phegan is excellent as the adult Jill – you can almost feel the knot in her stomach as the past comes back to haunt her – and Josh Anderson, Lincoln Vickery and Jackson Davis are believable and unsettlingly charming as the three young men who become attackers. Jodie Le Vesconte shows her versatility in two rather different roles.
There are a couple of kinks that could be ironed out here and there – and a few trims could be made to the script without it losing much of its heft – but there’s plenty of dramatic tension and insight in the work. It’s a great play for Wollongong audiences, and hopefully it will be picked up by other theatre companies around the country.