Reginald Theatre, February 17


We have short memories. That’s how we recover from trauma. One day Iranians may be free from tyranny, and the current protests and consequent crackdowns will recede into a dim past. Similarly, the widespread embrace of Sydney WorldPride could lead a young member of the queer community to think their sexuality or gender identity was never a source of comparable oppression, so the world premiere of Elias Jamieson Brown’s CAMP is a timely and confronting reminder of the brave pioneers who fought for acceptance.

Jane Phegan and Tamara Natt. Photos: Alex Vaughan.

Brown, who wrote the acclaimed Green Square, depicts a chain of events primarily in Sydney in the 1970s, as the battle for gay and lesbian liberation heated up, culminating in the first Mardi Gras in 1978. He reminds us of the drowning death of law lecturer George Duncan in Adelaide in 1972, most likely at the hands of police officers, and leads us through more hate crimes, violence and bigotry.

He turns the political struggle into a story primarily about four characters. Activists Dave (Adriano Cappelletta) and Krissy (Jane Phegan) are joined by Jo (Tamara Natt), who is coming out after an unsuccessful marriage and a stint working in the notorious Chelmsford psychiatric hospital. She falls for Tracy (Lou McInnes), who was subjected to Chelmsford’s appalling deep-sleep therapy (in which patients were kept in a barbiturate-induced coma for weeks), and who barely escaped a lobotomy, all to the end of “curing” her lesbianism. (Fifty years later, and the Premier is only now backing a legislated end to conversion practices.)

The production has been directed by Kate Gaul (for Siren Theatre Co) in a way that gives the play a verbatim, documentary flavour. Actors address us, the audience, in their exchanges, for example, rather than each other, which somehow compounds a sense of historical authenticity. Unfortunately, it also compounds the fact that Brown’s characters leave us a bit cold. Both playwright and director – whether intentionally or not – seem to prioritise the thematic points being made over our emotional engagement.

Tamara Natt and Lou McInnes. Photos: Alex Vaughan.

But not for the whole 90-minutes, thankfully. With Dave having been murdered in a hate crime in the intervening years, we meet late-middle-aged versions of Krissy (Anni Finsterer), Jo (Genevieve Mooy) and Tracy (Sandie Eldridge) in 2022, and both the writing for the older characters and the performances of these alternate actors are suddenly much stronger. The thematic concerns don’t evaporate, but the humanising of them is brought into much sharper focus. Had this been possible to the same degree with the 1970s characters, the play would be as exceptionally fine as it is important.

Nonetheless, there are many gems in Brown’s research and observations for the earlier scenes. When David appears on television’s Monday Conference, for instance, he is introduced as a “real homosexual”, and many stomachs will churn at the reference to the wretched Pablo-brand instant coffee that was the lot of the impoverished in the era. Music also plays a major part in evoking the past (and sometimes driving the drama), and Jessica Dunn again proves she is one of Sydney’s most astute theatre composers and sound designers. Production designer Angelina Meany has opted to put the actors on a raised stage in the Reginald Theatre, which serves to contain the action, so that protest marches, for example, can be effectively peopled by just seven actors, and her costumes, of course, raise the dreaded flares and paisley fabrics from the dead. If only that could be done for the many victims of homophobic brutality.

Until March 4.