REVIEW BY KEN CHISHOLM
The story is simple and direct: Junior loves Gayle, Gayle loves Junior. They’re just two neighbourhood kids feeling the first sweet intoxication of young love.
But Junior’s dad, Henry, is sitting in the lockup waiting for his sentencing for another colossally inept crime. And Gayle has a best friend, Sandy, at the local burger joint who is test-marketing herself as a prostitute in case her other career plans go bust. Junior who compliantly suffers his father’s unfatherly abuse finds a mentor in a philosophical alley derelict, William.
Henry tells Junior he must let his uncle use the family house in some criminal enterprises otherwise Henry will get knifed in jail. That brings the loopy Wineva (and there’s a villainess name right out of a very dark Disney movie) into Junior and Gayle’s lives along with making them accomplices in a series of scarily escalating crimes that not only threaten their young love but their lives and their friends.
The Highland Arts Theatre production of George F. Walker’s Criminals In Love boasts fun, engaging performances all around, economical but sensitive direction, spare, evocative, and impactful costume, set, and lighting design and with all elements combining to create a provocative, unsentimental look at the people whom “destiny” seems to never have their dreams come within reach.
Phonse Walsh brings the right mixture of boyish innocence and adolescent despair to Junior: it’s a very physical performance in both how Walsh’s Junior is always on the hop and how the other characters use him as a physical and emotional punching bag. But there is always a quality of hurt lost child in his eyes that makes him a tragic figure.
Jenna Lahey’s Gayle matches the sincerity of Walsh’s performance and the two of them anchor the mechanics of the increasingly dark farce of the plot. Lahey perfectly captures her character’s rising desperation both with the peril in which she suddenly finds herself, and the impossible demands (that her character has neither the experience nor resources to meet) that Junior places on Gayle. Lahey and Walsh’s chemistry is the soul of the play: the audience is invested in their future.
The star of this production is Sean Sullivan’s bravura performance as William, who smells of ten years on the street and action in “four revolutions” (as Junior informs us). Positioned by playwright Walker as somewhere between a guardian angel and Greek chorus, Sullivan’s performance deftly finds every laugh and a few more in his dialogue, some righteous anger at those who would abuse Junior’s and Gayle’s innocence, and whimsy in a play with a lot of dark corners. As close to a flawless performance on the HAT stage that I’ve seen yet.
Mary-Jean Doyle, as Wineva, was creepy, surprising, totally evil, but ultimately a little sad. Her character’s sheer presence on stage (Doyle’s performance of that character) instantly ratchets up the tension. Of all of Walker’s characters in this piece, Wineva goes through the most surprising arc and Doyle’s performance remains consistently on target during that off-kilter journey.
George MacKenzie, as Junior’s dad, Henry, plays him as a man content with his “fate” but exploiting it for fun. MacKenzie is a such a jovial presence that Henry’s sudden, indeed, shocking moments of betrayal and violence have a deeper impact with the audience.
Nicole Drohan brings a sassiness to Sandy, a young woman whose soul is so deadened by her minimum wage job, turning tricks is a step up the economic ladder. Drohan brings a charming physicality to her role and directness to her character that earns the audience’s sympathy.
Along with expertly guiding the performances of her cast, director Hilary Scott brought a keen visual sense to her play. A playground climbing set becomes both a scene of sexual gymnastics for Junior and Gayle and an image of “destiny’s” prison for a despairing Junior. All of the relationships between her characters are rooted in a reality that deepens the grittiness of Walker’s script. Scott’s skill as a director came to the fore in the final fadeout on Gayle and Junior: if that scene had not been true to both the characters and Walker’s script, if that scene had not precisely hit the right grace notes of emotion, then the whole play would have collapsed under its many absurdities. Scott, and her two leads, played it to perfection.
Bradley Murphy, as costume and set designer, created a down market world of rock band t-shirts and corrugates steel wall alleyways. Along with the punk-tinged music, without making more of a point of it, Murphy’s vision put the audience in the get rich yesterday era of Walker’s original script (the mid-1980s). Ken Heaton’s lighting design, as always, cleanly and unobtrusively supported the action of the play and provided some clever solutions to some tricky visual problems.
Criminals In Love runs nightly, 8pm, this week until Saturday, February 11, at the Highland Arts Theatre, Bentinck Street, Sydney.