Boy, Lost, Katherine Lyall-Watson’s stage play inspired by Kristina Olsson’s award-winning memoir, with brilliant direction by Caroline Dunphy, turns a harrowing real-life tragedy and its themes of domestic violence and emotional abuse into raw, unflinching, deeply moving theatre.
We first meet Yvonne, powerfully portrayed by Hsiao-Ling Tang, when she’s 17-years-old and she falls for Mick who is twice her age. Stephen Geronimos terrifies as the odious charmer who love bombs Yvonne until she agrees to live with him in North Queensland. But in Cairns, away from family and friends, her romantic dream becomes a nightmare when she discovers Mick is callous, exploitative and violent. And there’s yet another heart-breaking twist to come.
Storytelling comes in all shapes and sizes. In this play, it’s bold, non-linear and admirably compact. There are two narrators. Both play Yvonne’s children who for different reasons are obsessed with their Mum. One is Sharon played by Zoe Houghton, the author Kristina Olsson’s daughter, who invests the character of her Aunt with telling authority, dignity and authenticity. The other is Peter, the lost son. Morgan Francis’ incarnation of Peter clearly reveals his character’s dignity, courage and resilience in the face of extreme suffering. Francis also wrote the a cappella songs which provide a welcome moment of repose and choral comfort after a gritty scene.
To Dunphy and Lyall-Watson’s credit, there’s no cringy wallowing in misery or gratuitous violence. Physical fights are stylised or silhouetted by David Walter’s superb lighting and nuanced by Guy Waters’ astute sound design. Penny Challen’s set features various levels on stage which effectively evoke different spaces.
The direction is tough on the five-strong cast who each play several characters. A throw-back to pre-Elizabethan times perhaps when men routinely played female roles because there were no women actors. Colin Smith for instance expertly channels Yvonne’s kindly second husband Arne and her mother when he wears an apron, and he’s persuasive in both roles.
Looking backwards is a device integral to the theatrical arc which flips backwards and forwards in time. In doing so, the plot avoids getting mired in woolly chronological detail and crucially, the time shifts contextualise social attitudes and partly explain Yvonne’s deep immobilising shame. She lost her child.
For instance, when a desperate and pregnant Yvonne fears for her life and her baby’s safety she phones her mother and asks for the cost of a railway ticket back to Brisbane only to be told the family is strapped for cash. When Yvonne attempts to explain the urgency, all she gets is the finger-pointing riff so prevalent in the mid-twentieth century, ‘You’ve made your bed now you can lie on it.’
Several scenes are confronting, especially those interactions between Mick and Yvonne. And in the intimacy of the Diane Cilentro Theatre, the audience observes a desperate woman’s misery at close hand, rather like the neighbour or friend or official who knows what’s going on behind locked doors yet feels powerless and unable to intervene. After all, a man’s home is his castle.
When a pregnant Yvonne, aided by a neighbour, escapes and is waiting for her Brisbane bound train to leave the station, Mick leaps on board and wrests Peter, her baby son, from her arms.
Mick’s fathering is cruel, barbaric, at times unconscionably so and Peter runs away from home repeatedly. And yet the suffering he endures on the streets is just as grim, sometimes worse and results in his incarceration in questionable institutions the likes of which still exist today. He tirelessly searches for Yvonne. He wants to know why she abandoned him and left him with Mick and never returned to claim him. Sharon is determined to know the nature of Yvonne’s dark secret which makes her distant and vulnerable.
Despite the play’s dark themes, there are lighter moments, it captures the audience and its relevance today, when domestic abuse is a scourge of the nation, is immense. Yvonne’s crippling grief for the loss of her child resonates with the last century’s enforced adoption of babies born to unmarried women and the governmental dictate responsible for the stolen generation of first nations Indigenous peoples.
Boy, Lost runs until the 19 November.
Belloo Creative and Queensland Theatre present
adapted for the stage by Katherine Lyall-Watson | from the book by Kristina Olsson
Director Caroline Dunphy
Venue: Diane Cilento Studio, Queensland Theatre | Montague Rd, South Brisbane QLD
Dates: 29 October – 19 November 2022