Leon Cain's Liam is perhaps the best performance we've seen on the local stage so far this yearThere's also no doubt in my mind that Dennis Kelly's Orphans is some of the best writing we've experienced in a long time. Hoorah for QTC's Studio and this small, dark jewel of a play - and welcome to the stage Master Cai Witt and Master Coen Chalmers a couple of young actors making their professional debut as Shane, the young son of Danny and Helen.
It's a cool and drizzly Brisbane winter night, the wind is blowing off the river and I've scooted back in quick time from my current-neighbourhood playhouse - the Bille Brown Studio at 78 Montague Road. I've been disturbed rather more than I would have thought possible by Dennis Kelly's Orphans, a play out of contemporary Britain that lays bare another part of the barbaric underbelly of the carefully manicured middle class. I wanted to get home, turn the lights on and clear my head. Orphans' action is relentless, and it doesn't let go for its 105 or so minutes' playing time. It hooks you from the get-go as the blood-stained figure of Liam bursts in on his sister Helen at home and eating dinner with her husband Danny. Their young son Shane is away - being baby-sat, and they're having a quiet night at home - a 'celebratory dinner' cooked by Danny. We learn Helen is pregnant. The couple appear to be reasonably well-off; they live in a tasteful, beige on beige apartment which is interpreted with spot-on minimalist restraint in Sam Paxton's design. Kat Henry directs this production for Queensland Theatre Company's Studio with pace and flair. The starkness of Ben Hughes' lighting design and the cinematic atmosphere of Guy Webster's sound composition create a stage world that beautifully complements the play's dialogue - fragmented, naturalistic sounding yet meticulously crafted to reflect all the tempo-rhythms, poetry and ambiguities of everyday speech. Liam and his sister Helen (Helen Cassidy) are the orphans of the title; both have suffered psychological damage in childhood and both are needy adults. Helen has found some respite in her marriage to Danny (Christopher Sommers) but it's apparent there is still much healing to be done. Liam is cunning, smooth-talking, violent and adrift from any kind of societal norms. There's lots of talk of being part of family and of sticking together and, after the shocking incident that starts the action, Liam's predicament drives him back into Helen's small family in search of shelter and emotional and physical sustenance. His violence has inevitable consequences, however. The terrors of the dark world outside are dragged through Helen and Danny's cream carpeted haven. By play's end (no spoilers because this is one you have to see if you haven't already), Danny too has become complicit in actions that set him adrift from his former self, his marriage and civil society. Leon Cain as the deeply disturbed, jittery Liam is utterly mesmerising. Watching him inhabit Liam, darting around the stage, retreating and advancing, spinning out on a high-octane adrenalin rush is like watching some kind of deadly snake on the prowl. It's a marvellously complete characterisation and a performance that is intriguing and unsettling at one and the same time. His Liam inhabits the same fragmented psyche territory of his I Love You Bro' figure from La Boite's 2010 season. Here, though, he ratchets up the intensity and the finesse of his work. It's simply great to watch.