thieves like us

Thieves Like UsI went to see an interesting piece of theatre last night, a new Australian work by Marcel Dorney. Thieves Like Us was originally commissioned by La Boite Theatre in Brisbane, which is where the playwright’s friendship with director Jamie Dawson grew. Brisbane is also the setting for the play, which naturally affords some comic moments.

Dawson is currently Producer with Merrigong Theatre Co in Wollongong, which no doubt influenced how this play came to be the only in-house production in the 2008 season of a predominantly entrepreneurial company, staging visiting productions at the IPAC theatre.

Thieves Like Us is set mostly in 1989 with some scenes set in 1985. In 1989, Shannon is a hacker trying to explain that she wants to code for the good guys, just like her idol, whose life’s work Shannon has busted into. Dr Holly Arrow, however, is not too pleased at having to fly to Australia to investigate this threat to her professional status as well as national security.

The 1985 scenes gives us background on Shannon as she rents a room in the household of Kathleen, a secretary and single mother to Robert, then 12 years old and in school shorts.

Nerdy nice guy Robert becomes friends with Shannon and she teaches him to use computers and modems to poke around in the 1s and 0s that make up the emerging internet. By 1989, Shannon has figured out how to get inside LUCY – a critically important computer thingy, the function or nature of which is not revealed – and tells its creator so, leading to her interrogation by this American coder-turned-government agent who has the power to tell Australian guards to turn off the cameras and threatens to send our young heroine to Pakistan.

Robert is also interviewed by Dr Arrow, on the basis that maybe he actually wrote the program that busted LUCY, as is Kath, who thus gets the opportunity to stand up for the rights of Australians charged with crimes in Australia to be threatened only by Australians.

There are significant bits of back story, plot detail and story structure that I won’t detail here so as not to spoil the story.

My overall reaction is that the play and the production were definitely worth seeing. The script has flaws ranging from superficial but annoying (“open source” is referred to in the play, when it didn’t emerge as a term for making software source code open to public scrutiny and manipulation until 1998) to some deeper structural issues, but it is a good story with well-developed characterisations and Dorney displays a gift for writing believable, naturalistic dialogue.

The staging was good, with the single set of the interrogation room with table and chairs dominated by an eight screen bank of video panels, variously displaying the room itself as seen through two security cameras also visible to the audience, various external and internal backdrops and visual effects used to underscore the action and dialogue, on at least one occasion to very good dramatic effect. The actors and lighting were relied on to set different scenes in Kath’s house. I do, however, question the use of the smoke machine – what was that supposed to achieve?

Of the four performers, I thought Amy Usherwood was excellent as Shannon. A recent NIDA graduate, she was assured in the way she inhabited the role and believable in her onstage relationships with the other characters. Shannon is a choice role for an up-and-coming actress, with the script giving plenty of room for nuance and interpretation as well as fodder for some onstage dynamics, if not fireworks. She’s a girl, she’s a geek, she’s got a story and she’s got ambition – what’s not to like? Usherwood has a good time with it, and has an appropriately strong stage presence. It certainly doesn’t hurt the story that she’s also very good looking.

Leon Cain was also terrific as Robbie. He manages the challenging transition from smarty-pants but nice 12-year-old (who comes back to kiss his Mum goodbye in case he gets hit by a car) to horny, geeky and convincingly world weary teenager (but still a nice boy). Cain is very relaxed in his role, which plays well against the intensity of Shannon, the strident protectiveness of Kath and the aggrieved menace of Holly. Robert is both observer and participant, drawn into the action and able to comment on it, and Cain seems to enjoy himself.

Laurie Foell‘s Holly was the least successful character in the performance I saw. While the role could be better written and the director could have helped establish a different characterisation, Foell’s performance delivered a Dr Arrow who was peculiarly and permanently panicked about events, rather than the icy cool implied in much of the script. She certainly wasn’t helped by being given some ridiculous bits of stage business, to which neither the character nor the actor seemed suited. I was most surprised by Foell’s lack of vocal projection, undermining the authority of the character and leaving me wondering whether I’d missed a plot point or two.

I actually found Holly Arrow to be potentially the most interesting character of the lot: what was it that turned her from an MIT-based hotshot programmer to a ready agent of US imperialism and baravado? Does she feel personally threatened by Shannon’s emergence as a possible rival? Does she fear that Shannon will also be sucked into becoming a government propaganda mouthpiece? Who taught her how to hold a gun? And what the hell does LUCY do?

I don’t know whose choice it was to have Holly presented as a trouser-and-waistcoat wearing, gun-toting, childless chauvinist but they should have had a bit more faith in the audience. Same goes for making her fierce and febrile rather than cool and calculating.

As well as her demand for Australian interrogation techniques, Ann Burbrook as Kathleen also gets to make a speech about short-sighted education systems that failed to come to grips with the emerging importance of computers. Kath actually carries quite a lot of overt social comment in her lines, but Burbrook does a great job with them, flinging them about with conviction, hands on hips, as her son’s future or her lifestyle choices or her country’s independence are threatened.

Burbrook and Cain also have some lovely moments together as mother and son, physically comfortable with each other and skipping lightly through the kind of exasperated banter that is convincing in the right hands.

Music played an important role in this production, used to generally great effect. I had hoped against hope that we wouldn’t hear from Mi-Sex but sadly Computer Games did make an appearance. This 1979 track was dated by 1985, forgotten by 1989 and utterly pointless in 2008. Oh but wait – it’s about computers, get it? Apart from that, there was some good use of specific tracks and ambient background music, well selected and mixed.

All in all, I think director Dawson did a pretty good job with this. Choosing to produce a play by an old friend described as “his first full-scale professional work” could have been a big mistake, but there is enough in the script to convince that Thieves Like Us was a good choice for Merrigong’s home-grown production. Dawson seems mostly to have things in hand, although I’m not convinced that some of the trouble that Foell gets into with Holly isn’t due to directorial choices. He certainly should have helped her more.

Dawson does make sure that the cast use the space to good effect, and David Thomas’ design supports him in that. It’s a very talky play, but there is enough movement to keep everyone interested – with the exception of one strange, elongated and spectacularly unsuccessful silent face-off between two characters that almost looks like the actors have forgotten their lines.

This production does a great job of avoiding traps associated with this subject matter. All too often, drama about computers is instantly dated or just unconvincing. Same goes for drama set in the recent past. Same goes for story lines that refer to political events. Dorney, Dawson et al take this on and meet the challenge well. It probably doesn’t hurt that on the one hand Dorney is also a director and Dawson is also a writer, and on the other that most of the creative team have experience with multimedia.

While I wasn’t surprised that this production – an untried original Australian play dealing with contemporary subject matter – debuted in IPAC’s smaller Bruce Gordon Theatre, I was surprised at the small audience turnout for opening night. Granted, it was a Monday night, but I hope there are better houses for the rest of the play’s run (until 13 May).

Thieves Like Us has brought to my attention at least three considerable new talents to watch in playwright Dorney and actors Usherwood and Cain, while underscoring what it a boon it was that theatrical multi-talent Burbrook moved to the Illawarra.

One final point: I have yet to work out to what the play’s title refers. Shannon is accused of theft but rightly denies it. I’m not aware of any other thieves in the play. Is the title a reference to New Order’s 1984 single, itself named for the 1974 Altman movie? Maybe it’s the 1937 Edward Anderson novel that Nicholas Ray in 1950 turned into the noir classic They Live By Night, which was Altman’s inspiration? There’s also a British sitcom of the same name, but I can’t see a connection with any of them to this play.

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