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Shake & Stir Theatre Company: Fourteen - Review by Joshua Straw

Every person has their own unique memories and experiences, but it’s odd that often the struggles stand out far more vividly than the positive times. Regardless, reflection is a powerful (albeit confronting) tool to help gain perspective on how far we come in life and the adversities that we overcome in the process. This perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere of Shake & Stir Theatre Company’s production of Fourteen, a brilliant adaptation of Shannon Molloy’s powerful memoir. The opening of the show’s national tour, starting at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre, is an equal parts hilarious and heart-wrenching look into the life of Shannon, a gay high school student growing up in regional Queensland, and the joys and adversities he faces in his fourteenth year.

Shake and Stir have staged an exceptional production, and the adaptation work done by author Shannon Molloy, director Nick Skubij, and Nelle Lee has ensured a well written performance that grips the audience from start to finish. The creative team, led by Skubij and designed by Josh McIntosh, developed a captivating and versatile set that allowed for seamless shifts between the staggered memories that an older Shannon navigates with the audience, and I was thoroughly impressed. Every detail was well thought out to convey the simple and welcoming nature of a regional town by appearance, and how that can be clearly contrasted by the inhabitants’ attitudes to those who are deemed ‘different’.

The gem-like songs scattered throughout the play were perfectly reflective of the 90s hits we know and love. Not only were the choices of these songs exceptional, but the sound design and composition led by Guy Webster was perfectly executed; when the audience wasn’t singing along to the 90s nostalgia, they were holding their collective breath at the moments of tension occurring in the performance. The sounds and audio in the play were complimented through the strong costuming choices, designed by Fabian Holford. That feeling of the 90s was more than present in the clothing; the ageless Supré moments, the matching tracksuit sets. I transcended at the mere sight of a slap bracelet, all of which is to say that I found these choices perfect and hilarious. Although not a musical, I have to give a strong nod to the choreography done by Dan Venz. Without saying too much to spoil it, some really fun dance moments were created that both the cast and the audience loved. This fun and humour was juxtaposed well with some of the more serious parts of the performance, with the movements and actions carefully considered and led by fight director Tim Dashwood. Overall, this team of creatives and crew should be extremely proud of their collective vision and hard work.

In the role of Shannon, Connor Leach showcases a powerful, hilarious and heartbreaking account of Molloy’s early life, to such an extent that there were times I truly felt myself holding my breath in fear and horror. His performance striked just the right balance of humour and pain, and as an audience member it was easy to develop a strong sense of empathy for him. The reflective tone of the story, and the way Leach converses with the audience in his narration, only further cements the development of a relationship between audience and the character of Molloy. He brings true life and vulnerability to the character, and I found his performance to be without flaws.

Playing Shannon’s lovable mum Donna was Karen Crone, who created some truly heart-touching moments when interacting with Shannon. She shows her comedic versatility in this show, not just as Donna but also through her portrayal of the iconic Jessica and teacher Mrs. Stewart. There were no shortage of tears nor laughs when Crone took the stage. 

Mr Nelson was played by Leon Cain, as well as other characters such as Jonathon. As Nelson, Cain was extremely unlikeable - and by this I mean he put on an excellent performance. His portrayal of the character is well executed to create an uncomfortable feeling among the audience, spotlighting the misuse of authority toward Shannon and other young queer people. His range was highlighted in his contrasting portrayal of Jonathon, exemplifying Cain’s talents in creating unique and entertaining characters.

Amy Ingram took on key roles to support Shannon such as Rhonda and Morgan, and she is nothing short of a comedic genius. Her timing and delivery set the audience cackling at times, and the characters that she portrayed brought such joy and warmth to the stage that it could not be denied. My personal favourite character of Ingrams was the illustrious Chantelle, and her

seductive way with words. Ingram was a comedic lynch-pin throughout, and I would happily learn about recycling from any of her characters. Judy Hainsworth also played supportive characters in Shannon’s life, such as sister Trinity, friend Nicole and teacher Ms Kostopolous. Although there were some very confronting scenes in the performance, Hainsworth brought to the stage characters that clearly present the love and friendship that Shannon needs. She does an excellent job of conveying some very raw emotions, and assists in the movement of some strong emotional points in the play. That should not, however, undermine her comedic ability, as she was able to switch between the two with ease and leave audiences with the best kind of emotional whiplash.

Playing Brett and Andy, Steven Rooke exemplified an ally in his portrayal. Both of these characters were well-developed and strikingly different from one another, and yet the message of support and kindness is consistent in both. Rooke presents some really strong characterisation in his performance; at times he put the audience at ease, and in smaller ensemble roles he created a strong sense of foreboding and horror that I could feel in my stomach. It is a testament to his range that he can do both so effectively. In the role of Tom, as well as in the role of one of Shannon’s tormentors, Ryan Hodson also shows some exceptional acting chops. He brings clear confidence to the stage when performing and, like Rooke, I was impressed with his ability to switch between moments of light and human to intensity and fear. It felt like a being on a rollercoaster blindfolded with how suddenly I could be brought from one emotion to the next.

This is a powerhouse cast, and the exceptional portrayal of the characters is a testament to their talents. Being rooted firmly in the Australian vernacular, I did find certain words or sentences getting lost at times, but this did not undermine the experience of being utterly absorbed in the world of Yeppoon.

Fourteen, much like the age itself, is intimate and personal, and it would be remiss of me not to commend author Shannon Molloy for being vulnerable and sharing his story. It is essential that young queer people get to see themselves on stage and know that there is hope at the end of what sometimes feels like an endless tunnel. If you enjoy laughing, dancing, singing and crying, this is definitely the show for you. There are times when you will mourn with Shannon, but the message at the end is clear: there is always hope.

Be sure to catch Shake & Stir Theatre Company’s production of Fourteen as it begins its national tour.

Photos courtesy of David Fell.

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