Theatre Review: Sunset Strip will pull at your heartstrings (Performances in Sydney until 1st July)

Outstanding performances from four extremely talented Australian actors make Sunset Strip worthy of the (relatively small) price of admission. The Uncertainty Principle and Griffin Independent Theatre have delivered a beautiful piece of theatre. Just don’t expect sunshine and laughter.

By a dried up lake somewhere in regional Australia is a once-thriving holiday town called Sunset Strip. It is home to Phoebe, her father Ray and her new man, Teddy. Joining them for an as yet unknown reason is Phoebe’s older sister, and big-city lawyer, Caroline. Like the lake, all of them have seen better days; Phoebe’s fresh out of rehab, Teddy’s the original ‘local loser’, Caroline has just been through a bout of chemo, and Ray is barely holding on to reality.

Despite their respective troubles, Phoebe is determined to make the best of things, planning a celebration for the return of her children from DOCS. But, like any good family drama, there are a few skeletons to be dealt with first.

In her latest work, multi-award winning playwright, Suzie Miller, delivers an emotionally riveting tale that will sit close to the hearts of many. Reminiscent of Stephen Sewell’s Sisters, Sunset Strip delves into the competitiveness that often exists between female siblings. Adding to the drama, Miller also examines the familial implications of two complex and heartbreaking medical conditions – cancer and dementia. Both issues are handled with the care and sensitivity of someone who has lived experience, making for a genuine encounter between actor and audience.

And ultimately, it is the actors in this production who raise this piece beyond teary melodrama. Each character is thoroughly formed, with a rich backstory and authentic heart. Director Anthony Skuse has cast the play perfectly, and then allowed the actors the freedom to render the characters with a realism usually reserved for the screen.

As Phoebe, Emma Jackson is both exuberant and edgy. She perfectly captures the frustration of someone always in the shadow of another, but with an optimism that belies her current situation. Overall, Jackson’s is a very nuanced performance. Her interactions with her father Ray are heart-wrenchingly beautiful, played with a subtle cheerfulness that is often missing from a carer’s demeanour. In contrast, with love-interest, Teddy, we see the intense passion of an addict.

It would be easy to declare Simon Lyndon as type-cast in the role of Teddy, except that he is actually very good. Yes, he is at home as a laconic layabout, with his slow and easy vocal style and physicality, but behind those surfer-boy looks is a fully-formed character. He hides his secrets well, refusing to overplay the moment. You are left very much wanting to know more.

Tackling the role of cancer sufferer Caroline is Georgina Symes. As well as perfectly looking the part, with cropped boy hair and bony frame, Symes also delivers her lines with a rasp, implying she is not fully recovered from the ravages of her disease. But it is the way she reserves her energy through most of the 90 minutes that allows her performance to truly shine as her emotions inevitably burst forth. With the audience just centimetres away, Symes performs with such concentration and commitment to her character she should be a study for acting students everywhere. It is a wonderfully moving performance.

Rounding out the superb cast is Lex Marinos as Ray, father to Caroline and Phoebe. Playing mental illness truthfully on stage is a fine art, but one which Marinos handles masterfully. I overheard one audience member say they felt his character was a bit of light relief to break up the heavy subject matter, and sure, his portrayal does have a comedic edge. But to term Ray merely a jester is to belittle the performance of Marinos and the writing of Miller. Marinos is so wonderfully in his own head throughout the show that at times you almost forget he is there. But then a switch will be flicked and he is back, front and centre, engaging with his daughters in either lucidity or confusion. He brought more than one tear to my eye.

Set-wise, the four actors are given a relatively blank canvas to work on. The majority of the stage is sand, which has trapped an old dinghy, itself holding a few remnants from the past. Around the walls is a black, two-tiered rise, providing respite from the sand and seating for the characters. And in the back corner sits a fish tank, home to musical prodigies Coca Cola and Fanta. The simplicity of Emma Vine’s set and costume design allows the actors to shine but also points to the bleakness of their situation. The lighting design by Verity Hampson and sound design by Benjamin Freeman are perfect accompaniments to the set, and I particularly liked the use of Hunters and Collectors to open the show.

Ultimately, this is a fairly conventional theatrical production. The story is linear, with realistic dialogue that slowly reveals the characters’ deepest, darkest secrets. The production elements are well rendered but not out of the ordinary. The direction is sound and uncomplicated. These things are not criticisms as such, and all combine for a beautiful evening of theatre. But if you’re looking for something unique or theatrically distinct, this is not it.

Though this production doesn’t break any new ground, the performances by all four cast members are a must-see. Bring your tissues.

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Sunset Strip is playing at The SBW Stables Theatre in Kings Cross until 1st July. For tickets, go here.

The reviewer attended the performance on Saturday 17th June.