Children of the Sun – review (play)

Review by Daniel Ferguson for Children of the Sun 

Performed at QUT Creative Industries, Thurs 20/10/1026

Directed by Anna Doust, originally written by Jill Webster

Starring Kat Johnman as Jenny, Kara Fisher as Anna, Joshua Bell-McNee as Nathan and Rebekah Williams as Alena.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” ― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

*Disclaimer: I personally know the director and the event was free of charge. These factors did not influence my review.

Walking into the foyer, not knowing what I was even coming to see, and having not seen my friend in over a year in person (though knowing she was studying theatre, and sharing common book interests), I was unsure what to expect. But since I had the day free, and the tickets didn’t cost anything, I figured why not. Gotta be better than TransRoboTerminAlien Joe: Reboot Day 2, right? (actually, if that were a real title…)

Children of the Sun was an end-of-semester showcase student play that I only heard about last night (this review having been written on the lawn, beneath a tree, with a pizza next to me… Ah, that takes me back!) when a wild status update appeared on my feed. Seems a friend from Uni was directing a play now, and there were free tickets still available.

Since I wasn’t doing anything anyway, and I hadn’t seen her in person in a year or maybe two – okay, may as well.

Short version: two teenagers are being lured into a cult by a snake of a woman who promises love and light and great sensations and popularity (but you’re not allowed meat, and you have to pray every day at set times) but their mother disagrees with their poor decisions (while unsuccessfully hiding a Harley Davidson tattoo).

The longer version: The play centres on Anna (the character, not the director… I hope) played by Fisher, and her brother Nathan (Bell McNee) (I know a guy named Nathan, he’s like a brother to me), being lured into a cult of happiness and light and warmth (heh) who worship a god (they always have a god, and they’re always zealous af) and they don’t eat meat (so they’re also level five vegans) by the sizzling siren Alena (Williams) who’s business-woman attitude towards the pleasures of this cult make for some ahem interesting lines, particularly when she’s seducing Nathan (ie “It works better if you lie on the couch… Move your arm… Place your hand there… Feel the warmth…”) Awkward but raucous laughter ensued.

Anna, who is much more normal and relatable in appearance, dress and personality, is lured in by Alena’s (equal opportunity) siren call with the promise of community, fitting in, perfect life and love and truth… and manipulative demands.

Anna’s brother Nathan is similarly lured in, seeing as he shows all the classic signs of drug addiction (the eyes, man…).

The mother, Jenny (Johnman) desperate to keep her family together (the father isn’t around, spoiler alert) pleads with Anna to stay, even resorting to using her “soul name” (something spiritual-sounding, Raina I think?) at points.

The mother, I noticed, had a Harley Davidson tattoo on under her shawl (I’m told it’s real).

There was a closet in the middle of the stage (I’m not saying whether it opened or not, that would be spoiling), and there were two kitchen chairs, a couch, and a doorway. Connecting all of these, from the closet out to every piece of furniture, were streamers, and some people the row behind me were discussing what those meant and represented and all that symbolic stuff.

Having just been watching Firefly this week, and seeing the one where the hill folk kidnap Simon and River Tam, but right beforehand River is dancing with the folk there under a literal maypole, I thought of the outdoor dance floor… though there’s a polar opposite tone going on to that particular scene. This maypole is the closet and the closet has a skeleton and that skeleton is drugs and seductive lies and vulnerability. So the streamers represent a few things, really. Though, not knowing anything about it going in, I was thinking more like when a detective in a movie is connecting everything with strings on a cork board and gets told to turn in his badge and his gun because he’s officially lost it. Which, come to think of it, isn’t too dissimilar in symbolism. Every time I see that sort of thing, I think of that night Homer Simpson recalled scattered events of the night before, and he was frolicking around the pole with some scantily clad nymphs in black and white “silent film” style, and then he woke up in the gutter or on the couch having passed out from too much Duff beer. Make your own comparisons, I guess.

I’m not really an expert from any formal study (unless you count TvTropes), as A) while there’s techniques and craft, it does also come down to ability to deliver lines spot-on, or improvise well, and also to access emotion and use it to best effect. I haven’t studied the art and craft of it, but I am a writer, so I’m essentially a drama queen by proxy. (And I’ve seen Team America.)

And, when you see great acting, you know it. The actress who plays Alena is definitely going to go places. Not if, but when. Anna’s actress by comparison was convincing as a normal-ish teenage girl, ordinary and feeling down in the dumps and vulnerable to the whole “love and belonging” message the cult were pushing. I’ve been there myself, to some degree, and I definitely feel like that in my darkest moments. Her character evoked some real sympathy in me.

The mother, Jenny, struggles to keep the family together and functioning when the daughter is joining a cult and the son is on drugs; and being seduced much more sexually – this was an equal-opportunity seductress, of course – by Alena doesn’t really help mum’s position either. Same sympathy with Nathan, and his drug issues.

The closet… I’m not sure if that was to symbolise Nathan being gay, as such, but there was something he wasn’t telling anyone, so it was more a secrets-in-general kind of thing, as I saw it. His time on the couch with Alena was the kind of double meaning and innuendo that everyone in the audience got, laughed about, and knows that the person next to them is laughing for the same reasons you are – and not going to admit, in polite company at least, that they’ve seen that one before. Then you laugh because it’s not from Game of Thrones, but from something that is a play on that title…

I’ve known a couple of single mothers in my life, and the one in this setting was like both extremes rolled into one. A biker tattoo visible just under a knitted shawl and smeared mascara give you the “this woman was one type of person, now she’s the other” vibe simply from that one bit of ink, not quite hidden under the wool. So more to the point, it was party girl gets wild, has two kids, and struggles to keep them safe because of her own mistakes. And they’ve suffered just as much.

Along comes the serpent, and instead of luring the proverbial Adam and Eve out of the garden of Eden’s innocence and care-free purity, she’s luring them into false promises of that very thing, made more powerful because real life sucks sometimes and “no one” understands. Especially when you’re 16 and have Opinions.

These are oily Promises of happiness and praying (er, preying) and togetherness, all you have to do is step through this door and sign here, here, initials here, and everything can be yours and it’s perfect and you’ll be truly loved! You can be one of us! You don’t need your birth family when you’ve got our love, which is pure and bright and true, do you?

So, what rating am I giving this? Well, not knowing everything that goes into learning acting (I didn’t do drama in school, not really, nor music) or putting on a play, I can’t say with any certainty how well it went, but as a viewer (?) I was hooked.

Based on only really knowing the writing side of things, and watching a lot of movies, I’m not sure what to give it exactly. But I felt it earned every clap, because it was enjoyable to watch, it was confronting, it was awkward in a deliberate way, it was funny, it was interesting, and it was a real challenge to cut the script down to a half hour. I don’t feel any of it was truly overacted, at least any more than live theatre has to be sometimes, because it’s not being recorded or with much in the way of special effects like CGI that movies and shows have, so with all that in mind, I feel like it did really well.

And hey, I got to go back to Uni to see it, which is something I’ve missed. Besides, do I really need to see another 80s reboot/remake/rehash/sequel that’s sub-par in every way imaginable? I needed something a little different, and I’ve already seen Magnificent Seven and Doctor Strange isn’t out for another week, so I’m glad I went to this.

I’ll definitely be hugging my mother next time I go to visit.