Written in 1955, set in the late 1890s, The Torrents is a gem from award-winning playwright and feminist writer (intentionally or not), Oriel Grey. The play was never publicly performed until 1996 in Adelaide, and now at the Sydney Opera House in 2019.

The Torrents was a joint winner of a prestigious playwriting award in 1955, sharing the first prize with Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Lawler’s play has since become a school text and has been regularly performed. It has even been taken to New York, where the very Australian story underwhelmed the Broadway audiences.

The Torrents, on the other hand, has been very much forgotten. While it was relevant then – at a time when women had found their independence during the war and were being forced back into subservient roles when the men returned from service – the second-class treatment of women remains topical today. Sydney Theatre Company (STC) looks to revive at least one Australian classic per year, and this is its first for 2019.

It is the story of a woman who has been hired as a journalist by the local paper the Koolgalla Argus, in the fictional town of Koolgalla, after the editor has accepted the job application from JG Milford as being from a man. On JG’s arrival, the editor realises that the J is for Jenny and tries to convince her to resign. The other blokes in the office are also uncomfortable with her presence at first, except the apprentice, played by Rob Johnson, for whom I developed a soft spot for after his appearance in Spamalot some months ago. He plays the office boy with a hint of slapstick and his face is one of those which can be moulded into any humorous expression.

Thrown into the play’s mix of issues is sustainability – the town is a gold rush town and is built on the greed and dreams of those who have come to seek their fortune. However, the gold is running out and the town will be depleted of its population too if nothing is done to make it more than just a gold town. There is a plan to irrigate the land, plant crops and farm them for future generations, but the plan faces opposition from the old guard.

The play is a gentle farce – not slapstick enough to be a real farce but certainly on the farce spectrum. The story pits the town’s establishment, challenged by women and women’s rights, the replacement of mining with new industry, and new journalistic ethics against the publisher’s vested interests. There’s a lot going on and while in some ways it seems modern for 1955, when you consider what Hollywood was producing at the time (from Rosalind Russell speaking the words of Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer in His Girl Friday to Ernst Lubitsch’s Little Shop Around the Corner with Margaret Sullavan) these topics had been tacked by clever scripts in the 1930s and 1940s – and done well.

The period chosen for the play is also an interesting one. By the 1890s, female journalists were finding full-time positions at newspapers although their work was largely confined to social editorial and women’s pages. However, the women were not satisfied with these restrictions and even from within these bounds they challenged their male contemporaries.

Comedienne Celia Paquola plays Jenny Milford and she is wonderful. It is her theatrical debut but from the moment she sets foot on the stage, the audience is not sure whether to welcome her with applause, you know the silent applause is felt by all.  She is easily likeable and her character is smart and sassy without being brassy. It’s a good role for her and she is capably supported by a talented cast, all fine comedic performers, too. The rest of the cast is largely STC alumni – Luke Carroll, Tony Cogin, Gareth Davies, Sam Lonely, and Steve Rodgers.

Director, Claire Watson, Artistic Director at the Black Swan State Theatre Company is clearly passionate about the play with its searingly relevant themes and she has brought it the attention it well deserves.

The Torrents

Closes: Saturday 24 August 2019
Where: Sydney Theatre Company, Pier 4 Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay
Cost: From $99
For more information go to Sydney Theatre Company’s website

Feature image: The Torrents via Sydney Theatre Company