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On the Beach - Sydney Theatre Company (NSW)

Written by Nevil Shute, adapted for the stage by Tommy Murphy. Directed by Kip Williams.

Reviewed by Justin Clarke Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company 24 Jul – 12 Aug 2023 Tickets:


- Hauntingly relevant and beautifully adapted for the stage, On the Beach continues to speak volumes to our modern society -

Of late, there has been an influx of post-apocalyptic, deep dive character studies on world changing events. HBO’s The Last of Us, offered up a Pedro Pascal led series on parental bonding through viral-outbreak survival. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer made us relive the creation of the Atomic Bomb and question whether we truly will be the cause of our own demise. Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach penned events that are terrifyingly relevant nearly 70 years later. The subsequent 1959 film starring Gregory Peck brought the possibility of nuclear war into cinemas during a time where the fear was splattered over headlines. Now, playwright Tommy Murphy adapts On the Beach for the Sydney Theatre Company’s 2023 season, proving that the stories' themes and questions still, unfortunately, resonate in today’s society.

Directed by Kip Williams, the latest adaptation of Shute’s story brings the destruction of mankind to the forefront of our minds and shows that above all else, love and the duties we have to each other will always survive.

Sydney Theatre Company's On the Beach. Images by Daniel Boud.

We are placed in the post-apocalyptic world of Australia, no it’s not Mad Max and the world hasn’t broken out into a fuel war. Instead we are shown the world through the lens of the last surviving outposts of civilisation as the world hurtles towards extinction due to nuclear fallout. When an unknown distress signal is picked up across the Pacific, one last hope at survival is shone and our characters are forced to grapple with the choice of saving the human race or surviving with those they love.

With Williams proving himself to be an innovator in the Australian theatre landscape with the acclaimed Picture of Dorian Gray, there is much to be expected in this collaboration with Murphy’s script. On the Beach is itself a visually stunning piece. Williams has a knack for crafting piercing images in space, whether it be a towering tree that seemingly appears out of nowhere cutting through mist on stage, or an eerie nightmare filled with poisonous gas and a lone child begging for help. Paired with Michale Hankin’s set design, the Roslyn Packer Theatre is kept minimalist with a thin fabric draping the four corners of the stage, and another wafting back and forth, seemingly mimicking the looming presence of the nuclear fallout.

Strangely enough, that’s where it ends. With a story so character driven, our connection to the last humans on earth gets swallowed up by the emptiness of space. Moreso in the second act when the fabric is removed and the space is left bare. With Williams's adept skill at theatrical imagery, audiences were left wanting more.

However, it’s Murphy’s words here that are the standout of the show. The relationships crafted between Peter and Mary Holmes (Ben O’Toole and Michelle Lim Davidson) as well as US Navy Officer Dwight Towers (Tai Hara) and the carefree, spirited Moira Davidson (Contessa Treffone) are our gateway to the play's core themes of love and duty. Although the lead duo of Peter and Mary was yearning for further depth to make us fully invest in their story. Murphy’s ability to worldbuild is impeccable and he gently guides you throughout the show as we learn more about the post-apocalyptic vision of Australia and the tension is developed towards the end of the first act. Murphy’s script would survive in just about any theatre you transfer the story, even if the production elements can not.

A layered parable that speaks to our current world...there are lessons to be learnt here and rich conversations to be had post-show.

It’s hauntingly relevant without dragging the audience through the despondency of the world we’re invited to see. There are shimmering moments of hope and laughter throughout, with some black humour thrown in for good measure. The thrifty deal of having a spare “exit plan” drug was biting and elicited some late laughter from the audience as the penny dropped.

For all the poignancy and richness in the script, the lead couple of Mary and Peter significantly lacked in the believability of their relationship, especially for the ending to be the emotionally raw punch that it desired. O’Toole makes the most with what he’s given in a mostly flat character. Lim Davidson comes across as robotic in her dialogue despite working her best to create a believable relationship with O’Toole in her role as matriarch of their small family.

It’s Hara’s Navy Officer and Treffone’s Moira that instead drives our investment. Treffone imbues her scenes with a rich quality that is at once alluring and extraordinarily playful, sharpening out a “How To” on making the most of the end of the world. Hara’s monologue on the love for his distant family exudes the undertones of loss, providing layers of meaning throughout.

Emma Diaz who appears in snippets as Towers’ lost wife, Jennifer, chews the scenery with her appearances. Diaz embodies the notion of “no small parts” and leaves you yearning for her to make an appearance again.

STC regular Matthew Backer brings some much needed lightness in his role as CSIRO Dr John Osborne and solidifies himself as the voice of reason through the illusory hope in this world. An exchange of conversation regarding a Ferrari is a delightful breath in the inevitability of death the characters face.

On the Beach is a layered parable that speaks to our current world. Whilst the characters get lost in the vastness of the space, Kip Williams provides enough imagery and a few bits of stage magic to keep you captivated. Alongside Tommy Murphy’s beautifully crafted and destined to be re-staged script, there are lessons to be learnt here and rich conversations to be had post-show.


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