By Rose McCann
Diving for Pearls
By Katherine Thomson
Belvoir Street Theatre until August 18
With Robyn Nevin, Jeanette Cronin, Marshall Napier, John Jarrett and Pat Bishop
Reviewed by Rose McCann
Diving for Pearls is contemporary realist theatre at its best. It's a play immediately recognisable in its themes, locations and characters by all who have been adversely affected, in one way or another, by the current harsh economic times.
Set in Wollongong, a city which has lost more than 10,000 jobs since the early '80s from BHP (in this play the State Engineering Works), the production has a backdrop of ongoing retrenchment, bankruptcy, permanently high unemployment, and forms of social crisis ranging from family ruptures to suicide.
It is a bleak scenario, highlighted by the gritty concrete and coal slag heap set and the clanging, abrasive music and sound effects evoking the familiar noise of an industrial town.
Three performances in particular are brilliant. Robyn Nevin's great talent is used here to portray in an uncannily accurate and perceptive way, Barb, the middle-aged working class stroppy woman, with a tongue like a whip, a raucous sense of humour and an iron will to survive.
Verge, her retarded teenage daughter, is played with great energy, warmth and observation by Jeanette Cronin. Complementing these two often out-of-control characters is Den, a labourer for 25 years at the plant and now facing retrenchment, who is solid, decent, full of unnurtured talents and in love with Barb, who never quite recognises the good man that he is.
The play is thoroughly political and doesn't hide its anger at the remorselessness of those forces responsible for the effects of "economic rationalism" and urban and cultural sterility on the lives of ordinary people.
But it is political in a very human, non-didactic way. Playwright Katherine Thomson does not sentimentalise her characters or make them the complete playthings of blind antisocial forces. The characters are for the most part as in life — complex beings, full of contradictions and weaknesses, cruel often to loved ones, despairing at times and even self-destructive.
But there is among them too a dignity, a resilience and a marvellous humour in spite of the most bitter blows that make for a life-affirming message in the end — a message well worth
giving, and receiving, in these grim times. Wonderful theatre. Thoroughly recommended.