Walking into the newly built Rebel Theatre at Walsh Bay’s newly minted arts district in Pier 2/3 in for M.Rock is a theatrical experience unlike any other. Akin to entering a dark club in an Eastern European city, techno beats thrum through the darkened space as characters on-stage chat, laugh and dance. As guests take their seats, fighting the urge to join in on a boogie, red strobe lights illuminate the theatre. This revival by the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) immerses the audience from the get-go and prepares you for a whirlwind musical adventure with a surprising and heart-warming end.
Returning eight years after its debut and penned by Lachlan Philpott, M.Rock tells the story of recently graduated young woman Tracey (Milena Barraclough Nesic) and her “disappearance” while travelling around the world post-exams. Deciding to follow an attractive DJ to the techno clubs of Berlin on a whim instead of heading to the Africa leg of her trip, she causes a chain reaction that results in her Bankstown-based grandmother Mabel’s (Valerie Bader) own journey to find her granddaughter, which sees her encounter love, new skills and eventual fame in unexpected places. It’s a joyous ode to the power of self-discovery at any age.
Fortunately, this new production of the 2014 play is still as full of life and imagination as the original. Recent changes to Philpott’s script give a fresh touch, with references to the pandemic and the challenges young people face adding a contemporary and honest feel. Tracey’s obsession with meeting new people and nightclubbing in the wake of lockdowns is particularly understandable. The play’s core themes tell an intricate tale of self-exploration through the use of rhyming soliloquy, strong comic beats and music that resonates with audiences of all kinds.
Perhaps most surprisingly of all, this tale of self discovery at an advanced age based on a true story – Ruth Flowers, also known as Mamy Rock, launched her own career as a techno DJ at the age of 70 and is a strong inspiration for Philpott’s Mabel. Bader’s return to the role of Mabel is pitch-perfect and a significant win for the audience, who get to see her play the beloved character once more. Bader’s ability to demonstrate vulnerability and love within and outside of the script is her strong suit, and her captivating portrayal of the nuances of Mabel’s personal journey is amusing and heartwarming. It’s difficult to imagine the play without her.
The return of Fraser Corfield’s strong staging direction is well-matched with the small but powerful cast. This ensemble plays multiple roles with different accents flawlessly and provides much-needed life to the characters, including Bryn Chapman Parish as Kerry and Darius Williams as DJ Messerschmitt. Masego Pitso’s vocals connect scenes well and are a pleasure to hear, and she makes interesting acting choices that soar.
On the production side, the relatively bare set design by Melanie Liertz moulds perfectly to each of its needs, taking the audience from Kenya to Czechia with ease through the use of limited but impactful props. Lighting by Jasmine Rizk also provides variation in mood and complements the soundtrack of the show well, particularly given the number of scenes based in nightclubs.
For those lovers of techno music and the clubs that herald them, beats are enjoyed throughout, courtesy of mixes by Jonny Seymour of Stereogamous, which act as a strong complement to the comic delivery and storytelling. Paired with Mabel’s transformation, the music tells a story of its own.
Minor technical missteps sometimes undermine the power of the play, yet only through this storytelling can the audience see Mabel’s own discovery unfold before them. M.Rock reminds us about the limitations we all place on our elders in a way that feels timely and true.
M.Rock plays at the new Rebel Theatre at Pier 2/3 in Walsh Bay until July 17.