Award winning playwright Toby Schmitz has joined forces with director Leland Kean to present his latest play EMPIRE: TERROR ON THE HIGH SEAS for the Tamarama Rock Surfers Theatre Company.
Schmitz and Kean set themselves the challenge of writing a post –colonial play that wasn’t set in Australia. The story is set in 1925 aboard a luxury ocean liner, the Empress of Australia, on its way to New York. We find a colourful array of characters from Britain’s once great Empire; the vicar – Reverend Daglish, Mr Frey – a misplaced Australian Dadaist, an Australian Anzac, bombastic South African fighter pilot Tony Hertz-Hollingsworth and his flamboyant wife Nicole, the charming ex Eton/Cambridge man of leisure – Dick Cavendish, French couple Dr and Madame Foveaux, Chicago bag-man – Bang Reiby and cabaret singer Poppy Mitchell, amongst others.
It soon becomes clear that there is a serial killer on board and Inspector Archie Daniels suspects that the culprit is from the eccentric first class of the ship. We are aware by the second act of who the killer is and the murders become more and more macabre. There are some very clever scenes, including the cabaret songs by Poppy, sung beautifully by Billie Rose Prichard and the private cabin party, played with great exuberance by Ella Scott Lynch as party girl Nicole. Also invigorating is the wit and wisdom of Cavendish, played with great humour by Nathan Lovejoy. Anthony Gee as Mr Hertz-Hollingsworth was funny, but a little out of place with his aggressive and somewhat inconsistent South African accent.
The cast are all competent actors who seem to be struggling to make this cabaret farce into a drama. There is a lack of communication between characters, to the point where there is little sympathy when they are murdered.
The idea behind the play is great and the characters imaginative, but the dialogue is over intellectual at times and lacking in depth in terms of relationships. Perhaps Schmitz has taken on too complex a story to be credible on stage. There is great potential and brilliant humour and nuance nevertheless. If the characters connected more, the audience could be more involved on an emotional level. Kean has, however, brought out some fantastic characterisations amongst this strong cast of actors.
The production is very slick. The set design by James Browne is very 1920s and has that shipboard transitional appeal. The lighting and sound design by Luiz Pampolha and Jed Silver are extremely atmospheric and the costumes superb.
EMPIRE: TERROR ON THE HIGH SEAS plays the Bondi Pavilion from August 28 and September 28, 2013.