Roam | Red Stitch Actors TheatreLeft – Tim Potter. Cover – Ella Caldwell & Ngaire Dawn Fair. Photos – Jodie Hutchinson

Johnny and Julia are your typical young, co-habitating couple. They deal with their phones before they deal with each other. They have made the almost-mandatory shift from couscous to quinoa. And they are perfectly at ease discussing Julia’s bowel movements over dinner.

When an angry outburst at work sees Johnny out of a job, he spends more and more time online. Everything from Twitter to porn is traversed, but it’s the chat rooms that particularly engross him.

Soon he’s captivated by a precocious 13 year-old from Estonia, and it’s at this point that Roam seems about to take us somewhere grim. It’s not an unwarranted expectation, given Johnny’s steady disengagement from his real-life – his flagging sexual interest in Julia; his all night sessions drifting about the web – and the stream of graphic images that mark his search history. But instead of journeying to the dark side, the play makes something of a tonal U-turn.

The 13 year-old from Estonia persuades Johnny to meet her in an open world role-playing game set in ancient Rome; and once he’s in that world he discovers a new energy and purpose. Soon he is forking out money so that his Estonian friend can upgrade her avatar and improve her status in the game. Not only is Johnny reinvigorated by his incursions into this RPG world, but the play itself lifts considerably whenever the action shifts to ancient Rome.

Employing an all-white set to illuminate the cyberworlds Johnny is exploring, director Gary Abrahams has come up with an effective mix of live action and projected images. And he has loads of fun with the cyber-scenes – one where Julia, who has herself found her way into the game, presses the wrong keys and her avatar’s actions go completely awry, works particularly well, as do the fight scenes. The gaming sound effects (Daniel Nixon) and deliberately hammy voiceover (Lyall Brooks) combine with the canny RPG visuals to give the whole thing an authentic feel.

Tim Potter encompasses both the lost soul of the real-life Johnny and the boy-man of his centurion avatar, and Ngaire Dawn Fair is utterly convincing as the young Estonian girl, but then there is plenty here for her to work with. Less fortunate is Ella Caldwell as Julia. Caldwell does what she can with a role that really only functions as someone for Johnny to push against, and the few details we discover about Julia – her fractious relationship with her mother; her thankless job in some sort of social work setting – are never developed, leaving Caldwell with little to get her teeth into.

Adam Cass is perhaps best known for his play I Love You, Bro, a hugely successful work that also delves into the perils of cyberspace. And while in Roam, the scenes set in cyberspace give the play much of its vigour, the visual monotony of some of these moments – the checkerboard green during a long scene where Julia works her way through Johnny’s computer files trying to discover what he’s been up to; the lingering all-white of the final scene where Johnny’s and Julia’s avatars meet – tends, on occasion, to overwhelm the action.

But probably the biggest problem here is that there’s not enough in the framing real-life story – nor enough consistency in tone – to give Roam the balance it needs. Too much time is given over to bringing the world of the internet to life, and not enough to establishing the real-life foundations that would have given the play the edge it's missing. This lopsidedness is especially apparent in the play’s rushed resolution, which barely begins to address the dislocation cyberspace has introduced into Johnny and Julia’s lives.

All credit to Cass and Abrahams – working with  CG animators David Nelson and Michael Watson – for venturing down the path of dramatising these online worlds and bringing cyberspace alive. It’s entertaining stuff. I just wish the human drama here – an angry, disaffected man and his bewildered partner – hadn’t been quite so neglected.


Red Stitch Actors Theatre presents
Roam
by Adam Cass

Director Gary Abrahams

Venue: Red Stitch | Rear 2, Chapel St, St Kilda, VIC
Dates: Oct 11 – Nov 9, 2013
Tickets: $20 – $39
Bookings: (03) 9533 8083 | www.redstitch.net