A Study of One Family’s Suffering – Elissa Blake, smh.com.au (20.12.13)

A study of one family’s suffering

Elissa Blake

Published: December 20, 2013 – 3:00AM

Baby, it’s a wide world: (from left) Huw Higginson, Amanda Stephens-Lee, Graeme McRae and Alex Beauman play a family in crisis. Photo: Wolter Peeters


In the space of three years, Pantsguys Productions has become one of the most visible of Sydney’s independent theatre-making collectives.

Formed around a nucleus of graduates from Actors Centre Australia in 2010, the company has already produced 10 plays. One of them, British writer Simon Stephens’ drama Punk Rock, was voted Best Independent Theatre Production of 2011 at the Sydney Theatre Awards in January. The production’s director, Anthony Skuse, also collected an award for his work on the play.

Almost a year later, Skuse and Pantsguys are reuniting for another Stephens play, On the Shore of the Wide World, a tightly focused study of one family’s suffering. ”I love how [Stephens] deals with really big issues and the way they ripple from generation to generation,” Skuse says. ”I love the quality of his writing, the richness of the world. He’s also very clear in what he wants the play to feel like. He notates the script like a musical score.”

One of the leading young writers to emerge in the new century, Stephens won the 2005 Olivier Award for Best Play forOn the Shore of the Wide World. Like many of his plays, it is set in his northern English home town of Stockport, Lancashire. Here his subject is the Homes family, which, over three generations, has developed a knack for unhappiness. Perhaps 18-year-old Alex (played in this production by Pantsguy co-founder Graeme McRae), can break the mould, having found love with a girl called Sarah, who is staying over at his house for the first time. But with his parents’ marriage looking rocky in the wake of a tragedy, the situation quickly begins to generate instabilities within a fragile household already afflicted by the spectres of infidelity and alcoholism.

On the Shore of the Wide World, which takes its title from a poem by John Keats, is a much quieter play than Punk Rock, Skuse says. ”It’s not in your face, or anything like that,” he says, referring to the loud and often bloody stream of playwriting that emerged in the early 1990s. ”But you can hear Margaret Thatcher’s legacy in it. The characters are often saying things like, ‘I can’t tell you what to do. You need to do it for yourself’. But the characters all realise they can’t just do what they want to. Every step they take has consequences for everyone around them. It’s about recognising they are not just individuals, they are part of a community.”

The play is very much about home truths, McRae says. ”He’s right at that point of change, on the cusp of becoming an adult,” he says. ”We’ve all been there when you’re trying to find out who you are, but mum is holding on a little bit too tightly. Hopefully, it will leave audiences thinking about their family and their loved ones and how they relate to those they are closest to in life.”

After directing productions such as Lord of the Flies (New Theatre) and Punk Rock, Skuse has a reputation for bringing out the best in young actors. In this play, however, he has mature talents on board, too. ”I like the potential of a young actor, but I’m loving the range of experience in this cast. I can remember seeing Kate Fitzpatrick and Paul Bertram at the Old Tote in the 1970s. It is really exciting to have them in the rehearsal room. I’m seeing skills being passed down the line.”