Airlie-Jane Dodds and Miles Szanto.


Tusk Tusk, by Polly Stenham

Australian Theatre for Young People & Sydney Theatre Company | Wharf 1, Walsh Bay, Sydney | Until 4 September

Every so often, the reality of ageing hits you: a creaky limb, an extra wheeze up the stairs, the inability to read a finely printed program in the foyer of a theatre without squinting and pulling it back and forth to find focus.

This time, though, my eyes weren’t playing you-need-reading-glasses tricks. As I peered at the ages of the principal actors in Tusk Tusk, it became clear: the young people portrayed in this production were really being played by ones so young they all probably should have been tucked up in bed.

But wow, am I glad they weren’t.

Tusk Tusk is the second offering from 22-year-old Polly Stenham to play in Sydney this year, the first being the acclaimed That Face with Belvoir’s Company B. That a single playwright achieves two major company productions in one year is pretty impressive ... and, in this case, entirely warranted.

Fifteen-year-old Eliot (Miles Szanto,18), fourteen-year-old Maggie (Airlie-Jane Dodds, an astounding 16), and seven-year-old Finn (on opening night, Kai Lewins, 8) are holed up in their newly-acquired London flat. Their troubled mum has decided to start afresh in a new city and this might be the beginning of happier times.

But something’s not right. The boxes are still unpacked, and mum is nowhere to be found. While the siblings goof around, argue, laugh and hold an increasingly despairing vigil for their mother to return, they turn their faces from the elephant in the room: mum isn’t coming back.

Determined to stick together, they contrive to avoid the unwanted attention of neighbours. Being kids, though, sometimes things just get out of hand.

Finn bounces in and out of the battle between the pragmatic Maggie and the desperately hopeful and emotionally exhausted Eliot, while party-girl Cassie (Krew Boylan) looks on. Reflecting Maurice Sendak’s most famous boy-hero Max (Where The Wild Things Are), Finn dances with the monsters of survival, change and fear in a ‘wild rumpus’. Unlike in Sendak’s story, however, there comes no warm supper and a mother’s unconditional love at the end.

The brief appearances of adults (Cameron Stewart and Marta Dusseldorp) reinforce the transience of trust and security. Eliot, Maggie and Finn ultimately make their own way to an ambiguous future.

Despite being carried by such young actors, the content is pretty heavy going. Yes, it’s often funny, energetic and whimsical, but the cast are also required to draw on emotions of incredible depth and power. And they do it exceedingly well.

Director Shannon Murphy’s STC debut owes much to the extraordinary performances from her younger cast members. I’ve commented before on how hopeful the future of Australian theatre looks in the hands of some of our fine 20-something actors. I’ve just had to revise those ages downwards.

All images: ©Brett Boardman 2010

Airlie-Jane Dodds and Kai Lewins.

Kai Lewins and Miles Szanto.

Airlie-Jane Dodds, Kai Lewins and Miles Szanto.

Cameron Stewart and Miles Szanto.