It was a chilly Thursday night in Fremantle when I arrived at the Pakenham Street Art Space (PSAS) to have my first look at both this venue and an Upstart Theatre Company production. I had no idea what to expect on either account, but I kept an open mind, even as I stepped through the front door of the PSAS and saw a shabby, dimly-lit entryway with a creaky-looking staircase, peeling paint and crumbling floors. Crowded behind the door was a table where a young woman sat taking the tickets; she explained to me that the entrance to the theatre space was down a narrow corridor and through an opening under the stairs. We had to watch our heads, she said.
So down the rabbit hole I went, crouching slightly through the doorway, and after rounding another corner or two, I landed inside a massive space that looked like a cross between a basement car park and an empty machine shop. White pillars formed colonnades that connected the undulating stone floor with the timber ceiling. In front of us loomed the set: a stark black-and-white oasis bathed in a turquoise light, the set pieces covered in ghostly white sheets. To the rear of the hall are the dressing rooms and a small bar, lit by a drinks fridge and a string of square lanterns. Wafting from the bar is the most welcoming smell of a spicy mulled wine. The whole atmosphere was cool, different, stimulating.
Upstart is presenting Animal by Kay Adshead, a dark piece, but also sweet and funny in good measure. It’s directed by Upstart’s Artistic Director Garreth Bradshaw, who was also tending the bar that evening. Bradshaw is trying out some interesting things with this production, including offering a couple of “tweetseats” to two plugged-in patrons during one of their preview nights. Also, there are no programs to be found, but he offers instead an Upstart business card which has a QR code on the back that takes you straight to their website where you can find all the details of the production. It’s refreshing to see a company trying out new initiatives, and fearlessly doing away with tradition.
The story follows Pongo (Kingsley Judd), a mental health patient, who is being treated for a number of different conditions, but chiefly his anger, as part of a medical study for a new pharmaceutical. He’s studied closely by Dr. Lee (Sally Bruce) and his psychiatric nurse, Elmo (Patrick Downes) as the new drug regime begins to take effect. We learn concurrently who and what is behind the drug study as Pongo’s identity and past are revealed. Outside the gates of the facility, a protest foments and threatens to overrun the grounds. The story is fascinating and topical; it’s non-linear and complex, and deftly staged by this company.
Kingsley Judd is utterly convincing in this role, which could easily tempt a more self-indulgent actor to scenery-chewing and cliche. He is both vulnerable and volatile; his sweet disposition shifts suddenly to confusion and frustration, which ultimately leads him to display violent outbursts. Through him, we see how innocence is lost and manipulated. Sally Bruce is rigid enough as Dr. Lee, as she plays good cop/bad cop with Patrick Downes as Elmo. She hits her stride near the end, as the fulness of her character comes to light. Downes has a strong energy throughout, and pushes the momentum forward through each scene. Each actor has a different way of telling this story, and there’s a lot of good tension in the dynamic.
Bradshaw and his team have created a unique and thought-provoking experience with Animal at Fremantle’s PSAS. Here’s hoping they’ll keep rethinking old theatre traditions and coming up with new ones, being the upstarts that they are.
Upstart Theatre Company presents
by Kay Adshead
Director Garreth Bradshaw
Venue: Pakenham Street Art Space | 22 Pakenham Street, Fremantle WA
Dates: June 7 – 29, 2013