A love letter to South African women set in the sweltering outer 'burbs of Perth, Orange Thrower has finally hit the Sydney stage at Griffin Theatre’s Kings Cross home after a customary Covid set-back in 2021.
Teenage Zadie (Gabriela van Wyk) is holding down the fort while her parents are away visiting their hometown in South Africa. But when their house is pelted with oranges, she has to deal with more than just her nice white neighbours trying to touch her hair.
Kirsty Marillier’s debut play is an endearing muddle, filled with youthful enthusiasm and energy, but a little untidy and a tiny bit overcooked. On the other hand, it won the 2019 Rodney Seaborn Playwrights Award, so, you know, eye of the beholder. A younger theatregoer is more likely to relate to the themes of teenage angst, awkward emerging sexuality, and difficult family politics. A younger crowd might also better cope with the relentless pace, quick-fire vernacular-drenched dialogue, and tinder-box emotional reactions.
The action takes place in a fictional Perth suburb called Paradise. It is mostly set in the lounge room of a modest home (occasionally, other settings are inferred with simple props for swift scene changes). Zadie and her slightly younger sister, Vimsy (Mariama Whitton) are left to their own devices while their parents are in Johannesburg. The difference between the two girls is immediate – Zadie is serious, responsible, perhaps a little uptight; Vimsy is care-free, impressionable, uninterested in consequences.
We meet their mother, Yolandi, in voice only via the audible messages she leaves on the answering machine, but we get to know her through the conversations that are had between the girls and other characters. She is a no-nonsense woman, loving but disciplinary, concerned about image and reputation. These traits have clearly been imprinted on Zadie who is anxious not to ruffle any blond feathers in their middle class, predominantly white neighbourhood. She’s particularly mindful of Sharon, the self-appointed steward of the precinct, who sports a platinum bouffant, blood-red talons, and a venomous attitude.
Sharon is a secondary role played with high-camp by Callan Colley who also plays Leroy, the handsome, earnest, sexually naive teen crushing on Zadie. Leroy is an aspiring competitive swimmer with a very toned body to which the audience is privy when he appears dressed only in neon-bright watermelon-coloured Speedos on the premise of having to rush off to training. It’s a cute gender twist on body objectification which is played on throughout the script: “Girl, my eyes are up here,” he remonstrates to Zadie in one scene.
Zadie, Vimsy, and Leroy create a fizzy, pubescent ambience that is ruptured when the girls’ erstwhile ostracised older cousin, Stekkie, enters the household with the quiet stealth of a cargo ship running aground on a beach. Played with histrionic exuberance by Angela Nica Sullen, Stekkie is a relative who was shunned by the family for reasons that are revealed later. She is loud, intrusive, unapologetic and apparently in possession of dark powers – a phenomena that manifests in a couple of incongruous, unexplained “Chekhov’s gun” type moments. Sullen also does double time, playing Sharon’s husband Paul in a whacky, sketch-comedy-esque scene.
The narrative starts to get convoluted with gratuitous mysteries and superfluous drama. Many of the comic moments and social commentary feel contrived, with obvious set-ups like the suburb’s name (Paradise) and clunky double entendres. The result is often near cringe-worthy humour, sometimes spoiling moments that might otherwise be quite charming.
The orange thrower mystery is itself a kind of red herring, with a resolution that begs more questions and renders some plot elements inexplicable.
However, despite its flaws, this is still an enjoyable 80 minutes of theatre, with genuinely funny moments, clever use of restricted space, and a likeable cast, if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief a little more than the average trip to the theatre demands.
Orange Thrower is co-produced by Griffin Theatre Company and National Theatre Parramatta. It plays at Griffin's SBW Stables Theatre in Darlinghurst from February 18 to March 19 (get tickets for SBW Stables here), before heading to Riverside Theatres in Parramatta from March 30 to April 2 (get tickets for Riverside here).