SBW Stables Theatre, July 13


How many plays are preceded by a reminder that we can ring Lifeline if required? Yes, Jailbaby is that confronting. Suzie Miller’s ability to challenge audiences with impassioned writing about societal failures was well established, especially by Prima Facie, about sexual assault. Now she blasts the penal system and the blind eye turned to the extra-curricular punishment of jail rape.

Anthony Yangoyan and Anthony Taufa. Photos: Clare Hawley.

AJ, young and poor, has been charged after playing a minor role in a burglary and assault. His lawyer, Olivia, forlornly attempts to save him from the fate that awaits him in prison, but AJ’s cocksure he’ll get off: they can hardly lock him up when his career as a professional soccer player is about to take off. All Olivia can do is get an ex-con to give AJ the lowdown on how best to survive behind bars – information AJ doesn’t want to hear, because it’s not going to happen, is it?

Miller creates an AJ we can forgive – even like – as we recognise his punishment doesn’t fit the crime. In fact, the punishment itself is a crime: one that leaves him with violence as the only tool in his emotional armoury.

Anthony Yangoyan, a wide-eyed, far-from-frail AJ on a steep learning curve about hell on earth, is joined by Anthony Taufa and Lucia Mastrantone in covering 14 roles. Whether director Andrea James should have obeyed this Miller stipulation is questionable, as ready differentiation between the characters was beyond the reach of these actors, and probably most others.

Anthony Yangoyan and Lucia Mastrantone. Photos: Clare Hawley.

This, however, is a minor issue compared with that which eats into the play’s soul. There’s a parallel plot about Seth (Yangoyan), a dysfunctional 17-year-old whose middleclass parents are beside themselves as to how to marshal him away from video gaming and on to the runway to success. But Seth has his own ideas. This second strand feels overly contrived in offering contrast between the fates of rich and poor, with the characters not nearly as convincingly drawn, and the acting falling away in consequence.

That aside, there’s much to admire, with several scenes realised by exposition (on AJ’s part) rather than enactment. Often a dramaturgical sin, here it allows us to see the world through AJ’s eyes; to feel his terror. This is Miller’s writing at its most potent, and it’s deeply distressing – hence the Lifeline (13 11 14) reference.

Until August 19.