It has been fourteen years since Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling first premiered in Adelaide and four years since Melbourne’s Theatre Works first sought to stage it. These would be mute details for any other play. But Bovell’s epic family drama has always put time and its effects at its centre.
In 2039, a fish falls from the sky and lands at the feet of Gabriel York (Francis Greenslade) waiting to meet his son. Seventy years earlier, a fish soup poisons a young man named Gabriel Law (Darcy Kent) who is desperate to learn more about his father.
Meanwhile, a couple grapple over an unplanned pregnancy in a London flat in 1959. The show follows seven characters as they remember, forget and reckon with their pasts.
Over two hours it constructs a tapestry (one reviewer described it as a ‘poetic pretzel of a play’) of interweaving timelines that has distinguished it as one of Bovell’s best. And its themes – of inherited trauma, climate crisis and family legacy – have grown only more prescient with time.
After all, it arrives at Theatre Works after a four year delay prompted by the pandemic (a 2022 season was abruptly ended by a snap lockdown), a time that saw renewed interest in the climate crisis. When we are told of a flood threatening to end the world early on, it’s a frighteningly easy conceit to accept.
But despite the show’s continuing topical relevance and such a long lead up, this co-production from Iron Lung Theatre and Theatre Works is surprisingly uneven.
Director Briony Dunn garnered well-deserved acclaim with her previous production of the one-woman show, The Human Voice. Here, she is equally assured. Characters glide across the stage in well-choreographed sequences that evoke the haunted atmosphere of Bovell’s text perfectly. Dunn shows an incredible eye for constructing subtly affecting tableaux throughout.
A dinner table hosts different versions of the same character across time. Whether devouring a fish soup or sipping a glass of red in the background of various scenes, these characters haunt the stage and offer a stirring evocation of the unavoidable relationships we have to our past selves.
All the while, reflective epoxy flooring gives an impression that the stage is constantly damp; a foreboding and atmospheric reminder of the near-constant fall of rain and threatening flood to come that enshrouds every character across time, even if the sound of shoes sticking to its surface creates an unintentionally comical effect.
Some blocking choices are contrastingly stale. As the two-hour production goes on, scenes begin to overuse similar positions. Characters front of stage are watched by others on a rise at the back. What initially reads as an evocative representation of voyeurism across time eventually loses its effectiveness, relegating characters to a stagnant posture of watching, or to being watched, that often keeps them unnaturally still.
At times, this stillness is justified. A stoic mother sips her wine in the background in a way that complements her son’s storyline playing out front stage. But when characters are not given anything to do other than watch, their fixed presence on stage risks rendering sequences stagnant.
With no intermission – and on an opening night marred by a stuffy humidity – this fixed blocking runs the risk of compromising audience interest.
In such a complex play with so many moving parts, there is concerted pressure on technical elements to keep the audience involved via a carefully constructed atmosphere. Musical compositions are often muffled by a loud, and near-constant soundtrack of waves or rain.
By relegating an evocative piano-led orchestration to the background, this production effectively mutes any atmospheric quality to it. While the near-constant ambient rain and ocean soundscape loses effectiveness via overuse.
Lighting design washes out the stage with a general, all-encompassing yellow, with blackouts rarely used. The near-constant illumination is another intriguing evocation of the co-mingling of the show’s many timelines, but it appears stale as the show continues, often leaving characters standing for long periods of time washed out by its general illumination.
At one point, actor Lucie Chaix was left standing on a back stage rise in the dark, still attempting to evoke a grief-stricken response. While a seemingly suicidal fall from Uluru appeared comical because of a delay in one of the show’s rare blackouts. These moments are outliers in a production that I’m confident will return to the level of finesse achieved in its previous, albeit short-lived, season as its performances go on.
Thankfully, it’s in good hands with a seven-strong cast that deliver expert performances across the board. Francis Greenblade is heart wrenchingly earnest as the fumbling father Gabriel York, and his turn as an insidious husband complicates his villainy with a natural lovableness.
Darcy Kent lends a boyish charm and endearing quality to the listless Gabriel Law and, as his mother, Margaret Mills achieves an impenetrable stoicism and authority that never compromises likeability entirely.
Chemistry between the show’s couples could be better evoked, with Heather Bolton and Chris Connelly providing one the productions rare examples of performing intimacy effectively as the loveable door mat Joe and the haunted Gabrielle York. Their arc as a couple is one of the shows more striking moments of tragedy as a result of their believable, if fraught, connection.
There is a lot to juggle in Bovell’s enduring play. In weaving various timelines, character arcs and relationships with surrealist flare, the text offers a particular set of challenges for even the best production team.
Despite some faults, this production rises well-enough to its complex requirements to offer a rewarding, and ultimately deeply affecting, experience that will strengthen – as all things do – over time.
When the Rain Stops Falling
Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda
Performance: Saturday 4 March 2023
Season continues to 18 March 2023
For more information, visit: www.ironlungtheatre.com for details.
Image: When the Rain Stops Falling – photo by Lachlan Woods
Review: Guy Webster