Katherine Thomson’s play Diving for Pearls premiered in 1991 – but all these years on it feels as timely, topical and moving as ever in this beautifully wrought production at Griffin Theatre Company.

Steve Rodgers and Ursula Yovich. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Set during the recession in the late 1980s in a steel-making town on the New South Wales coast, which is unnamed but clearly based on Wollongong, the play deals with the human cost of economic rationalisation. It focusses on two working-class people, struggling to survive in a rapidly changing world. After the funeral of a friend who has hung himself, Barbara (Ursula Yovich) meets up again with former flame Den (Steve Rodgers) and their relationship is rekindled. For a while, they enjoy a brief respite of happiness. Barbara realises that things are not what they were. Determined to try and better her life, she badgers Den into paying big bucks for her to go and study etiquette and hospitality, hoping to land a job at a beachside hotel, which is opening in the town and will soon be hiring.

“I’m not stupid,” she says. “I’ve gone into it. I know my age. You don’t go for waitressing or behind the bar, women my age are hostesses. Here’s your table, here’s your waiter, here’s the conference room. Have a nice conference… I know you have to look the part. Like you were eating croyzants before anyone else had heard of them. You can do anything these days. Well, you have to.”

But we know that there is little chance that her dream will become reality.

Ebony Vagulans and Steve Rodgers. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Den, meanwhile, works at the local steelworks. When a management consultant is sent in to assess its viability it turns out to be his brother-in-law Ron (Jack Finsterer) who has his back and proffers advice. But again, it’s clear from the start it’s not going to turn out well. Complicating the situation is the arrival of Verge (Ebony Vagulans), Barbara’s teenage daughter who has mild brain damage resulting from a near drowning as a child. Verge yearns for a real home, not the institution where she has been living, but though well-meaning her presence and behaviour agitates Barbara. Then there’s Barbara’s equally well-meaning but rather condescending sister Marj (Michelle Doake).

Director Darren Yap brings the play to moving life. For starters, he has cast it exceptionally well. It’s hard to think of two actors who could play Barbara and Den better than Yovich and Rodgers. Thomson has written the characters with great tenderness but absolutely no sentimentality, and Yovich and Rodgers bring them to beautiful life, warts and all.

Yovich’s Barbara is endearingly brash, feisty and outspoken with an earthy sense of humour; ready to take the life-line offered them when the factory closes and start afresh. Rodgers’ Den is a gentle man, happy to lead a quiet life, until his frustration and anger finally explodes, but a man who can’t quite turn his back on the past and take a gamble on a new future. Few actors can play ordinary folk and break your heart the way Rodgers does.

Ursula Yovich and Steve Rodgers. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Finsterer is very convincing as Ron, who finds himself struggling with divided loyalties, Doake is very funny as Marj and Vagulans, a newcomer who recently graduated from NIDA, gives a sweet, touching performance as Verge.

Designer James Browne does a clever job of shoe-horning the play into the tiny space, with little models of houses dotted around the set which is dominated by steel pipes. There is a large grass hill with the stump of a tree, which can be raised to reveal the interior of the factory. The fact that it is cranked up by hand by one of the men relates well to the physical labour of the factory workers.

Benjamin Brockman’s lighting, and the composition and sound design by Max Lambert and Roger Lock, which uses music by the City of Wollongong Brass Band conducted by Robert Read, are also extremely effective.

Twenty-six years on, in a society where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is vast, Thomson’s play is as tuned into the anxieties of the time as when it was written, and proves itself to be an undisputed Australian classic, while Yap’s production serves the play beautifully. Great stuff.

Diving for Pearls plays at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, Sydney until October 28.


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