Black Swan State Theatre Company and Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company: Skylab
Review: Robert Housley
When NASA sent the space station Skylab into orbit in 1973, it could not have imagined the impact its return to earth would have six years later. The tracking of its partially controlled descent captivated the world, with predictions the crash site would be in the southern Indian Ocean. But it overshot the mark and showered the area around Esperance with space debris.
This extraordinary story and the experience of the people who lived in the area at the time have been mined by playwright Melodie Reynolds-Diarra in a fairly extraordinary way. She has created a hard-to-define theatrical experience that amalgamates history with science fiction, comedy and aboriginal dreaming to tell her story.
David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust (sound design Clint Bracknell) sets the opening scene on the small rural property near Esperance inhabited by a struggling aboriginal family of Nev (Alan Little), Jem (Laila Bano Rind) and their three pre-teen children. Living in the corrugated iron shed outside is conspiracy theorist-cum-eccentric Uncle Harvey (Gary Cooper). He has a propensity for wearing ‘protective headwear’ to ward off mind-controlling influences, is wont to voice outbursts to the heavens and constantly listens to his ham radio to hear “what’s going on out there in the stars”. He also has plenty to say about the injustices committed against aboriginal people and their spiritual wellbeing.
The story is a slow burner in the first act, with family life in the late 1970s dominating: the children at play, Nev’s problems at work and Jem doing her best to put food on the table. Cultural references to the era are augmented by Matthew McVeigh’s period set, though its raked floor and distorted perspective suggests all is not normal – or soon won’t be. Sonic booms from Skylab’s crash to earth reverberate at the end of act one, issuing in a whole new theatrical experience in the second half.
Magic realism becomes the new normal after the space junk arrives and technical wizardry helps make the magic happen. When the protagonists put their minds to something – effectively make a wish – it comes true. No matter how outrageous. So when the children desire to act out their favourite television show the cult classic Monkey it miraculously happens. Indeed, it embodies the Monkey mantra of “with our thoughts we create the world”. And thus goes the remainder of the play – a dream(time) come true, full of fantasy, good fun and a fair few laughs.
On the down side, the pace of the play under director Kyle J Morrison was uneven, particularly the first act. This is arguably the result of having three pro-am child actors in roles so thoroughly integrated into the narrative and who have several scenes independent of adult cast members.
Skylab is a co-production between Black Swan State Theatre Company and Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company running at the State Theatre Centre until 2 September. It tours to the Red Earth Arts Precinct Karratha on 5 September and Camel Lane Theatre Carnarvon on 8 September.