Checklist for an Armed Robber | DeckchairLeft - Tim Solly & Caitlin Beresford-Ord. Cover - Vivienne Garrett, Tim Solly, Caitlin Beresford-Ord & Brendan Hanson. Photos - Jon Green

has a reputation for bringing us heavy and problematic pieces and the drive behind Checklist for an Armed Robber is clearly no different. 

Set between a Newcastle bookstore and a Russian theatre, the play was developed from concurrent newspaper articles from the same weekend in late October, 2002. One tells the story of an armed robber talked out of his potentially violent crime by the kindness of a clerk in a targeted bookstore. The other is more recognisable, and far more sinister – the Moscow theatre siege by Chechen rebels of October 23-26, 2002. 

Do you remember that siege? It resulted in the deaths of 39 hostage-takers and 129 innocent theatre-goers, all but one of them killed by a still unknown chemical agent that was presumably meant to be an aerosol anesthetic. 

During the siege, and the play, a Russian journalist is brought in from the US to negotiate with the young rebels and playwright Vanessa Bates draws comparisons between this exchange and that of the Newcastle bookstore clerk and petty Aussie thief. In both cases, she says, an older woman is trying to communicate with a younger armed man. 

While this may be true, for me it’s highly problematic as a premise, because while the Newcastle story might show us the power of a kindness shown to an armed robber, in the depiction of the Moscow story what seems to be lost is that it doesn’t matter what the journalist said to the rebel, nor whether they shared experience or empathy. It doesn’t matter that these ‘terrorists’ didn’t want to kill the hostages, nor that they were really just youths born of perpetual war and oppression.

It doesn’t matter because this is a story about a government allowing the meaningless deaths of 129 innocent civilians in aid of covering up any responsibility it might have had in the lead up to the action of the Chechen rebels. And here lies the horror and despair that I find impossible to ignore in favour of Bates’ illustration of courage, personal risk-taking, compassion and communication. She, and by extension, director Chris Bendall, could have chosen to juxtapose these singular human capacities with the heinous results of totalitarian politics which so clearly impinge upon the Russian government in this case. But they have not.

Heard the expression, "Can’t see the wood for the trees"?  Well, I can see the trees, sure. But I am still light-blinded by what this play is not saying, what it is ignoring, what it is disrespecting by using this tragedy to point out a secondary truth.

So, with that said, where to start on a theatrical review? I can tell you that Victoria Hall is a wonderful space and that Isla Shaw’s set was innovative and Nick Merrylees’ lights worked well with the choreography of the actor’s movements. 

I can tell you that the cast were sympathetic and energetic, if a bit polished and lacking some warmth at times. I have seen Caitlin Beresford-Ord, Vivienne Garrett and Brendan Hanson in a variety of roles and have always found them to be strong performers and while I was not familiar with Tim Solly, of him I would now make similar judgment. 

Directorially, Bendall is competent if a bit removed, but occasionally leaves his actors in a bit of an expressional no-man’s-land, unsure of exactly where to pitch their emotional level. And I would have to question the choice of having Australian actors playing Russian characters speaking English with Russian accents. I think the delicate task of perfecting an accent like this for performance is such a challenge and in this case it is distracting and unnecessary, where English spoken in a neutral accent would have more than sufficed.

But none of this really matters in the end either, because this work is, at its core, something with which I simply cannot connect. Remember when a single player on a bare stage could make you cry inside just as undoubtedly as a soaring soprano? I miss that. I want to urge all Perth’s contemporary theatre-makers to take a paring knife and no prisoners. Give us back our muse of fire. Give us real shock instead of shock-value. Perform us people. Show us our hearts and then cut them out. Please.

Deckchair Theatre presents
Checklist for an Armed Robber

Director Chris Bendall

Venue: Victoria Hall Fremantle
Dates: 14 March – 4 April 2009
Tickets: $35 standard/$30 concession
Bookings: 08 9430 4771

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