Motortown | little death productions(l-r) Sean Barker & Simon Corfield

The Sydney’s post-Festival summer season has kicked off with quite a respectable round of ticket-purchasing options. Three new big gigs opening in just this past week: David Hare’s The Vertical Hour at the STC, Kate Mulvany’s The Seed at Belvoir, and Richard O’Brian’s (sic) The Rocky Horror Show. All offer what they promise, and have been effectively reviewed by colleagues elsewhere on this site.

I will explore the ‘authorial debate’ surrounding Rocky in my next blog, but I note O’Brian’s name does not appear to be attached to the current television adverts. I would love to know if that’s deliberate. Or a ‘slip up’, yet to be hastily corrected.

To the news of the day!

Another, smaller show has also opened: a compelling and remarkably well-realised indie-gig called Motortown, playing at the Stables. If you like your theatre straight up, no icing, then this emotionally potent, low-budget gig is for you.

Motortown is written by British writer Simon Stephens, who picked up the 2006 Oliver Award for Best New Play with On the Shore of the Wide World. Motortown was written, not long before, in what might be called a four-day ‘fit of passion’ in the wake of the massive bombings that hit London’s transport system in July 2005. Without specific reference to those events, Motortown carries that trauma within its dna.

It’s the story of British soldier, Danny, trying to cope with life back home after a stint in Iraq. He downplays his psychological wounds, focusing instead on what he sees as the unworthiness of the people back home for whom he’s put his life on the line.

In his thinly disguised state of disarray, Danny spends time - at the beginning and end of the play - with his mentally-challenged brother, Lee. They present a telling contrast: Lee has been born damaged, Danny (for the most part) has been injured by the war. In their shared suffering we encounter the only intimacy and tenderness in the play.

Danny is particularly wounded to find his one-time girlfriend, Marley, will have nothing to do with him. His letters from the front have frightened her, as have their encounters since she got back. She has no insight into the causes of his pain, and her unequivocal rejection of him sets in trail what we know in our guts, for Danny, will be his unraveling.

Already we can see why comparisons have been made between Motortown and Buchner’s Woycek: two soldiers coming home from war distressed and unraveling in the wake of failing romances. Motortown also shares Woycek’s fragmented structure. Neither embodies a conventional story line: instead, a series of near random encounters with friends and strangers that, in their effect, create a through-line in the form of mental disintegration. I don’t want to say any more about what happens in Motortown, other than to warn that some of it is quite fierce and not for the squeamish.

Director Ben Packer attracted attention last year with a production of Mercury Fur which, after premiering at Theatreworks in Melbourne, also played a successful season at the Stables. His direction here is taut and wiry. Clearly, Packer’s reputation as an emerging director of real talent is such that he has been able to attract an excellent cast.

They are a get-go bunch, typical of the new generation of practitioners capable of more than waiting for their agents to call. There is a particularly heartfelt rendition by Sophie Kelly as the girlfriend, Marley, who only wants Danny to leave her in peace. And there’s a sensational scene towards the end, partly gifted by the writing, where Ryan Gibson and Catherine Moore, as the yuppie couple, Justin and Helen, try and pick up Danny for a three-some. If Danny thinks he fought in the war for ungrateful unworthies, self-serving weirdos and scungy misfits, he is sure of it now.

The character of Danny is a godsend to the rare actor who can deliver the intense mix it requires of an outer edgy forceful masculinity and inner vulnerability and pain. Everything that is good about this Sydney production hangs off Sean Barker’s fearless and convincing performance, as frightening at times as it is ultimately heartbreaking. Barker’s outward displays of raw anger are judiciously timed, just as the worm of grief eating out his insides is ever palpable across the surface of his skin.

The play is written with astonishing intensity of focus. That characters occasionally slip into speaking directly for the playwright is a small fault, given that what the writer has to say in such moments is so interesting.

In giving this production a major wrap, of course, I am encouraging attendance. Do remember that this is ‘little theatre’: not War and Peace or Apocalypse Now. Yet, despite access to only limited material resources, Motortown is richly imagined and vividly realized by both director and cast.

little death productions and Griffin Stablemates present the Sydney premiere of
by Simon Stephens

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre, 10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross NSW 2011
Season: 15 February – 8 March 2008
Times: Monday Pay-What-You-Can at 6:30pm. Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm. Saturday Matinee at 2pm (8 March only)
Prices: Full $29. Snr $25. Preview/Conc. $22. Under 30 $25 (booking fees may apply). Monday Pay-What-You-Can performances are min $10, max 2 tickets.
Bookings: MCA-Tix 1300 306 776 or online at

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