Deftly blending uproarious humour with affecting pathos, Benjamin Law’s Torch the Place is a triumph. Having supported the writing of Law’s first play through their visionary NEXT STAGE program, Melbourne Theatre Company delivers the world premiere of Torch the Place with a first-rate cast and generous production values.
The issues play we didn’t know we needed, Torch the Place teases out the causes and complications of compulsive hoarding disorder, a disorder that reportedly affects two to six percent of Australia’s population. Law handles the issue with grace and good will, layering the love amongst the laughs and having the innate wisdom to avoid glib generalisations and simplistic solutions.
Having recently beaten cancer, Di’s 60th birthday is all the sweeter. The arrival of her children brings eager enjoyment, until the nature of their birthday present is revealed. Following complaints, Di’s mountains of “stuff” need to be cleared, but the children’s efficient three bin system has not accounted for the trauma Di is set to experience in the process.
A proven writer in the concise sitcom genre, Law takes to the stage with great flair, expanding what is essentially family living room comedy with flashbacks, dream sequences, musical sequences and more. Well-rounded characters are quickly established, running jokes abound, and the scenes are broken up in an entertaining rhythm. The 90-minute running time of the single act play fairly flies by.
Director Dean Bryant follows Law’s lead in ensuring that family dynamics are slightly theatrically heightened and yet tenderly grounded in realism with a strong sense of shared family history. Clever writing and terrific performances create a high level of audience engagement, an aspect further facilitated by the intimacy created by the amphitheatre-like curve of the cosy Fairfax Studio.
As the second ever NEXT STAGE world premiere, Torch the Place shares the focus of 2019’s Golden Shield in focusing upon Asian characters, a fact that only serves to highlight the shortfall in Australian plays across previous decades.
Whereas characters of every generation in Crazy Rich Asians had a streamlined western feel, Law and Bryant break the mould with lead character Di, who speaks with heavy accent and occasionally broken English. In different hands, Di could potentially be seen as an offensive stereotype; in lesser hands, she could be there simply for laughs. Expertly portrayed by Diana Lin, humble matriarch Di is a true leading lady, dazzling flawed as a woman who is, by turns, proud, stubborn, crafty, frazzled, judgemental and yet altogether lovable.
Bryant has clearly worked closely with his designers in crafting this world premiere as the physical production is as much a character as the five family members. Making a highly auspicious Melbourne Theatre Company debut, set designer Isabel Hudson works with confidence and vision to create the imposing piles of belongings. The set is cleverly designed to revolve to establish three zones. Initially looking like the MTC prop store has simply been emptied onto the stage, further inspection of myriad details reveals great thought in portraying the life and history of the family. Full credit to stage manager Julia Smith and her crew for the daunting task of reconfiguring the complex setting for each performance.
Costume designer Kat Chan brings each character to quirky, vivid life, strongly aiding the swift establishment of the five distinct characters in the play’s opening scenes. Lighting designer Amelia Lever-Davidson gently supports the tone of alternately merry or more sombre scenes, also playing a key role in the success of fantasy sequences.
Law’s sharply observed writing gives each of Di’s children a unique and yet connected character, with the roots of each one’s traits and sensibilities becoming clear as the family history unfurls during the sorting of a lifetime of possessions.
Fiona Choi gives pragmatic eldest daughter Teresa an air of easily wounded fragility and slowly simmering resentment beneath her authoritative practicality. In the least showy of the five roles, Choi nonetheless makes her mark portraying a noble woman whose sacrifices for others have coloured her life choices.
Michelle Lim Davidson is a delight as sweet, bubbly Natalie, a one-time television star and now social media influencer brand ambassador. Natalie cannily uses her position as favourite to help influence Di, facing a nasty outcome when Di’s distress causes some damage to Natalie’s money-making face.
In a welcome Melbourne Theatre Company debut, Charles Wu nimbly sidesteps stereotypes in crafting gay, socially conscious character Toby. Not suffering full depression, Toby is nonetheless sullen, with tendency to be overwhelmed by talk of past trauma. This sort of characterisation does not usually come across effectively on stage, yet in the Wu’s capable hands, Toby’s vulnerability is both touching and endearing. To use the old cliché, Wu brings down the house when Toby joins in the singalong to “Reflection” from Mulan.
Another notable newcomer to Melbourne Theatre Company, Max Brown gives a lively, entertaining performance as Teresa’s husband Paul, a property-mad investor who struggles to avoid speaking in jingoistic expressions.
Torch the Place was greeted with a full standing ovation, an all too rare honour at MTC opening nights. Practically sold out before it opened, remaining tickets for the season will surely be snapped apace. Lucky ticket holders are in for a distinct treat.
Torch the Place plays at Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne until 21 March 2020.
The Torch the Place program can be read online.
Torch the Place is presented as part of Asia TOPA 2020.
Photos: Jeff Busby