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20 June, 2021

A conversation-starter for issues of empathy, identity, mental illness, drug/alcohol use, support and resilience

Undertow is a one-hour dramatic piece of physical theatre, touching on the lives of students, and staff at Bonnerville High School. As is portrayed in Undertow, much can happen at a high school in a short two-week period. The two writers, directors, designers and performers (Sam Foster and Hayden Jones) bring a cast of around ten characters to the stage.

As waves break, the seaward-flowing mix of water and sand can make people feel as if they are being sucked underwater—making ‘undertow’ a useful metaphor for the challenges of daily life, and the pressure to stay afloat. Centred on the challenges faced by Jesse, Connor and Phil, the piece reminds audiences of the need for empathy and support—and the importance of realising that everyone may be facing difficult challenges, which are often hidden beneath.

There is much to admire in this work. Foster and Jones portray a range of characters — which included impressive moments with three characters on stage (all still portrayed by the two actors). The production makes great use of a limited range of props to quickly establish a range of locations, and the lighting (Laura Jade) was simple but effective. I greatly enjoyed the original, ‘live’ music (Sam Foster and Guy Webster), which played an important part in the show—both in connection with Jesse’s character and relationships, but also in the opening and closing of the piece.

Although touching on some pretty challenging themes, Undertow had some lighter moments—albeit some of the humour seemed to centre on parodies of  mature women. I’d suggest that certain caricatures — such as the flirty school secretary and the Germanic psychologist — might need to be re-thought in the context of a piece touching on empathy and identity. I also question whether there needed to be quite so many characters in such a short play — unless the idea is to perhaps have a range of different endings, to emphasise the challenges that everyone faces in their lives.

Undertow would be a great production for years 9-12 students, where the one-hour performance might be followed by open classroom discussions and workshops. The show would be a good conversation starter for considering issues of empathy, identity, mental illness, drug/alcohol use, support, and resilience. It made for an interesting evening out, and certainly provoked those conversations between two audience members on Thursday night.

Audience information: Ages 13+ Contains adult themes — including identity, drug alcohol and suicide references,  and gun violence. Some strobe lighting and smoke haze. The Brisbane Powerhouse 16-26 June 2021 run takes place in the Underground Theatre (previously the Visy Theatre).