Lest we forget: ATYP’s A Town Named War Boy

Presented by ATYP and the State Library of New South Wales, Ross Mueller’s A Town Named War Boy takes a collage-like approach to storytelling: rather than tell the story of one person, he has used fragments of diaries in the State Library’s collection to create an impression of the campaign, both in the trenches and the journey from Australia.
Ostensibly the story of four young men – Snow, Huddo, Tom, and John – it is Snow who Mueller’s impressions centre around, whose story we follow from a small country town in Victoria to the cliffs in Turkey and back again. Mueller’s writing, as in all his work, is muscular and vernacular; there is a robust command of the language which, when delivered by these four young actors, seems entirely natural and effortless. Mixing more contemporary speech patterns with those of a century ago, Mueller creates many haunting images and moments which are brought to life by director Fraser Corfield, designers Adrienn Lord (set and costume), Emma Lockhart-Wilson (lighting), Steve Francis (composer), Alistair Wallace (sound), and the cast.

Staged in the State Library’s Metcalfe auditorium, the small lecture-theatre stage is covered in coarse damp sand, while a jetty and lamppost and a boat give us a sense of location and place. Around the stage, a series of layered painted-canvas backdrops create a startlingly effective evocation of the cliffs and beaches of Turkey, especially late in the play when coupled with Lockhart-Wilson’s lighting and Wallace’s sound design. With nothing more than shifts in lighting or sound or focus, the actors move from moment to moment with ease, and the fluid seventy-five minutes feel weighted with a poignancy which is disarming to witness.
The four young men in the cast – Joshua Brennan, Simon Croker, Brandon McClelland, and Edward McKenna – are strong, and capably portray the youthful gusto, cheekiness, and at times sacredness which fill the pages of the diaries. Each ‘war boy’ has their own story, their own idiosyncrasies; even though each actor plays several roles within Mueller’s story, we never lose sight of the ‘war boy’ who is telling the story, writing home to his loved one’s in his diary. And this is particularly affecting, especially as Mueller and Corfield build to their haunting conclusion.
There is an economy to Mueller’s script, to Corfield’s production, which lets the words of the war diaries speak for themselves, which lets the four young actors tell the stories of young men, just like themselves, who went to fight for their King and country, perhaps not knowing who or what they were really fighting for, many of whom didn’t come home. Above all else, this is a play about remembering those who did not come home, who left a piece of themselves on those beaches and battlefields on the other side of the world, and the sacrifice they made for future generations. In this and many other regards, A Town Named War Boy is a simple, effective and powerful piece of theatre; of all the Gallipoli centenary commemorations – on stage and screen, in music and theatre – this is definitely one of the strongest.

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