Darwin’s Reptilia @ Belvoir 25A

Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.5 (reviewed 19 November)

Five humans. One motel resort. And a whole lot of crocodiles.

Darwin’s Reptilia by emerging playwright Charlie Falkner promises to be a quintessentially Australian thriller, and it does not disappoint. Inspired by landmark Australian movies and real-life news events, Reptilia takes all the tourist clichés and gives an unnerving, psychological portrait of the greatest predator of all: man.

The play kicks off in America, at a fancy social gathering, where we meet best-selling self-help author, Renata, and her Irish husband, Declan. It transpires Declan “can smell blood”, and if there is no blood, there soon will be. While Declan is off-stage looking for a victim, she is approached by a desperate and lonely fan, John Quigley, who has avidly been “following her steps” (in the book) and wants “new steps to follow”. Renata announces she’s about to head off to Australia to attend her mother’s funeral, and also get a taste of a wild and exotic adventure where “Tasmanian Devils roam around”.

The transatlantic premise is a wonderful plot device to give us an outsider’s perspective of Australia, a country often touted as a ‘dangerous’ place, home to all kinds of deadly animals and creatures. In Reptilia, this comes in the form of an infestation of wild crocodiles lurching just outside at Palm’s Motel, a rundown back-packer’s paradise in Darwin with a swimming pool full of pee. The motel is run by Bobbi and her young assistant Felicity (Flick), Renata’s half-sister. Renata and Declan arrive unannounced with a new baby in their arms, expecting to attend a funeral arrangement to pay their respects, but there isn’t one. Soon afterwards, John Quigley stalks his way around the world to join the couple at the motel.

The unpretentious script twangs and buzzes with primal tension. There are lots of references to people dying in stupid circumstances (colloquially known as “Darwin Awards”, though this term is not explicitly used in the play). The actors are running on a frequency of flight / fight mode, the horror of the crocodiles lurching just outside their door serving as an allegory to human instinct. The sound effects of the crocodiles’ rumbling appetites brings heightened awareness to the audience, making them feel entrapped in the dark, cramped enclosure in the pit of Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre.

The stage aesthetics gives hyper-realism to this scenario. The mossy green is reflected in the costumes, and the jewel-green pool full of wrestling jelly splatters about everywhere when things get out of control. The ochre pink walls look tired, worn and a throwback to something that was once thriving, but now just looks like the pallid colour of human flesh. Bobbi’s overdone flashy eye-make-up is tacky but honest, a woman who takes pride in her appearance but is a little rough around the edges, possibly with a back-story of having been battered through life, and surviving.

The performances, directed by Samantha Young, are the most chilling of all, in a Michael Haneke kind of way. If looks could kill, they probably will. Declan (Danny Ball) oozes dangerous charm, not necessarily in a fetish kind of way, but in more in a masculine need to assert dominance and protect his family and his offspring at all costs. His human weakness terrifies and confuses him, creating a layer of surliness as over-compensation.

Renata (Ainslie McGlynn ) uses her piercing blue eyes to cut through the BS of others to protect her own. She’s a free spirit with a call to adventure, hungry to taste the thrill of the wild and the exotic. The crocodiles don’t scare her, they fascinate her. Like the unfortunate nature-lover Timothy Treadwell that got too close to bears till he was inside one, Renata is entranced of having a connection with the deadly crocs. McGlynn is convincing as a woman who was abandoned by her own mother as a baby, and yet won’t allow herself to wallow in self-pity; in true American fashion, she capitalises on it by writing a book. Renata is not the warmest of new mothers, and yet she is unflinchingly relatable in her self-acceptance of her need to break free from a life of domestic conventionality.

Flick (Zoe Jensen), like her sister, is also very matter of fact about life and death, but more open and generous in her demeanour, casually enjoying the carefree life at The Palm’s Motel. Jensen is a ray of sunshine in a play marked by coldness and fear.

Bobbi (Leilani Lau) offers warmth and protection in a hostile environment, taking pride in the upkeep of the Motel, even if the place is rough around the edges. She is fond of looking after a rat in a cage, feeding it with love and endearments, to possibly fill an aching hole inside for something (or someone) she lost. Lau’s performance is grounded and rich in subtext; a very inspired performance!

Mathew Lee gives us awkward-stalker John Quigley, a man who just wants some friends to hang out with to overcome his innumerable anxieties, such as hurting people’s feelings if they mess up his order. Lee is an American talking version of Mr Bean, a little oafish and clumsy but craftier and more cunning than he looks. A commendable performance in an ambiguous role.

Pacing wise, it’s not always clear where the script is going, and the emotional arc can feel a little incongruous and disturbing, but it fits with this genre of storytelling; Darwin’s Reptilia is an edge of your seat thriller that fills an appetite for biting theatre where the choices are raw and the human element is a dish that is a little colder than expected.

Darwin’s Reptilia presented by JackRabbit Productions is playing at Belvoir 25A until 26 November 2023. For tickets and showtimes, go to https://belvoir.com.au/productions/darwins-reptilia/

Images: Phil Erbacher

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