Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (reviewed Saturday 18 May)

Robert Hewett’s Gulls at The Guild Theatre in Rockdale sets the bar high for community theatre, with a narrative inspired by Hewett’s first hand encounters with people trapped in institutionalised care.

The stage welcomes us to the home of grown-up siblings Frances and Bill Clements. Frances is Bill’s carer after he sustained a brain injury in a car accident when he was a child. Dan who was the driver at the time is now pursuing a relationship with Frances, pressuring her to devote herself exclusively to him. Molly is a widowed neighbour who is only too happy to take care of Bill, using it as an excuse to burrow her nose in their affairs. 

Bill seems to be supported by carers, but they only regard him as a stubborn, uncooperative patient, not a person with agency and dignity and desires of his own. Gulls gives a voice to those silenced by brain injury and trauma, forever trapped in a life sentence of dependency and patronising care.

Hewett allows the character of Bill to act out and do uncomfortable things. Bill accosts Molly while pleasuring himself. He becomes aggressive when pushed too far. Bill isn’t a saint but he also isn’t a child. He may have aphasia (inability to speak) but his cognitive function is still apparent. This is weaponised against him (‘you do know what you’re doing, don’t you?’) which pushes him further into sullen retreat.

Director Susan Stapleton creates a sensory, beguiling, remote atmosphere by the sea where families with troubles go stoically about their day despite the turbulence. The quartet cast perform admirably in scenes of that turbulence, giving the play an engaging level of discomfort and humour. Mark Stokes’ portrayal of a cognitive-impaired patient with a rebellious sense of humour is both sensitive and empathetic. We want to help and hold him when he is grunting in rebellion or despair, but we are helpless. We can only watch. Bill switches between this persona and a more lucid one addressing the audience, a dramatic device seen in the later play and film The Sum of Us by David Stevens, in which one of the characters has a stroke and cannot speak to his carer son, but still addresses the audience directly to talk about the indignity of it all.

Donna Randall’s portrayal of Frances, Bill’s sister, carries an emotional weight of sacrificial love that resonates with all carers. Brett Van Heekeren’s portrayal of Dan, her love interest, draws suspicion and distaste for his character’s selfishness and coldness. Lyn Lee as Molly steals the show, an Aussie version of Judi Dench that dials up her character’s nauseating old-mother-hubbard bullying to deliver words like a punch. More of this from the ensemble please! It would be most welcome in an acoustically challenged space competing with the sound of air conditioning and external elements. The opening dialogue and more prosaic interactions sounded a bit too casual and didn’t quite land, and I’m still lost on who ‘Mumbles’ is.

The scenes along the beach (situated outside the Clements’ cottage) gives dynamism and evocativeness to the feeling of freedom, as conveyed by the title of the play. In other productions seen around the world, the seagulls are represented by hovering puppets; here the use of sound effects conveys the gulls’ presence and distinctive, bad-tempered squall. Territorial, confrontational and elusive, the gulls become a literal and symbolic motif in Bill’s daily adventures; a much needed reprieve from the claustrophobic, imprisoned environment of his sheltered home life.

Gulls is compelling, authentic storytelling that will elicit tears and thoughtful discussion about healthcare and patients. As a production as a whole, Gulls has potential to soar.

Gulls is playing at The Guild Theatre in Rockdale til 9 June 2024. For tickets and showtimes, go to

This production of Gulls is in support Lifeline. To make a donation, go to:

Images: Grant Leslie Photography

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