AsylumGlynis Angell and Tom Considine in Asylum

Asylum! In today's world the word conjures up the image of asylum seekers, refugees fleeing political persecution in their homeland and seeking sanctuary in Australia. But the word equally evokes the concept of a madhouse, a place for treating those who are mentally ill. Kit Lazaroo's latest play Asylum, which won the Wal Cherry Award in 2006, plays with these alternative meanings in an absurdist and ultimately thought-provoking way.

Fanny Hanusin plays Yu Siying, a young Chinese woman who has been studying in Australia and is currently making her fourth appeal for residency on the basis of her fear of persecution should she be forced to return to China. She appeals to psychiatrist Dr Lally Black (Glynis Angell), urging her to write a letter supporting her application to stay in the country. Dr Black increasingly finds herself trapped between a desire to treat Yu Siying in a compassionate way and the demands of the bureaucracy represented by Turlough Dando played by Tom Considine. Her situation is complicated by the fact Dando seeks her help as a psychiatrist and her brother Smudge (Tim Stitz) is living with her. He once worked as a guard in a detention centre and is haunted by the fact that he shot and wounded an escaping refugee. As a result of the incident he is suffering from deafness.

The performances are impressive. Glynis Angell creates Dr Black as a woman whom we love to hate, but who is struggling within herself and clearly has a conscience, much as it's difficult to see on the surface. Fanny Hanusin (who also performed in Lazaroo's 2004 work True Adventures of A Soul Lost At Sea) is wonderfully vibrant, appealing and manipulative as Yu Siying. She readily plays the stereotyped shy Chinese girl with the cute smile and teasing wave when it suits. At other times she is angry and argumentative. Whatever else she is, she is determined to play the system to her advantage. The overall irony is that she is free in a way that none of the other characters are. Both Dando and Smudge are trapped in their roles as bureaucrat and misfit. It's the women who have the strength and self-knowledge and exercise it.

Set and costumes are designed by Amanda Johnson and they work well. Dr Black, in her grey power suit and sensible shoes, with hair tightly under control, looks to be the perfect puppet of the system. Yu Siying is her exact opposite, bubbly, emotional and dressed in red. The businesslike surface of the grey-suited Turlough Dando is quickly revealed as just that, an automaton surface that hides an emotionally insecure person.

I have never seen grey filing cabinets used so creatively. They are stacked up against the back wall of the tiny La Mama space, their greyness highlighted by clusters of red files. Their drawers are frequently opened and closed to great effect. They contain documents, evoke emotion and reveal puppet shows representing the inner workings of Dr Black's mind. There is a small retreat under the stairs which is Smudge's bedroom from which he sometimes emerges, and a desk which doubles as a dining room table. There is also a tortoise what is secured under a classic grey metal rubbish bin by Dr Black.

Despite the seriousness of the underlying theme, Lazaroo and director Jane Woollard bring a playful, absurdist quality to the work and provide plenty of laughs for the audience. The skill in the writing and in the performances is that this laughter does nothing to undermine the seriousness of the issues being raised; instead it highlights the absurdity of a system that has such a negative affect on all those who are caught up in it, whichever 'side' they may be on. So, whilst you will certainly find yourself laughing out loud during the performance, you will also find yourself thinking hard about the realities of the system once you leave the theatre, and these thoughts will continue to haunt you long afterwards.

When accepting the Wal Cherry award Kit Lazaroo said I’ve been on a long and sometimes arduous road with this play. I probably would have given up on it if it weren’t for my collaboration with Jane (Woollard) and the promise I made twelve years ago to the woman whose story it is based on, that I would write a play about her.

Theatre lovers will be grateful that Lazaroo fulfilled her promise of twelve years ago and, with her director Jane Woollard, succeeded in creating a theatre work that is absurd, bizarre, funny, moving and thought provoking.

La Mama presents
by Kit Lazaroo

Venue: La Mama | 205 Faraday Street, Carlton
Dates: March 15 – April 1, 2007
Times: Thursdays to Saturdays at 8.00pm, Wednesdays and Sundays at 6.30pm
Duration: 95 minutes approx
Bookings: 9347 6142

Most read Melbourne reviews

Master of the deadpan, harsh host of Hard Quiz, and heartless interrogator on Hard Chat, making...

It doesn’t matter how much you know or care about the legality of the Essendon Football Club...

If you’re looking for a show that’s completely different and unlike anything you’ve seen in...

For fans of the musical, the problems and changes to the book and plot of Chess are as familiar...

Swapping 16th Century Verona for 1930s Hollywood, and a lengthy title for the short and snappy...