Review: Wonder Wall – The Phoenix Theatre, Coniston (NSW)

Written and directed by Thomas Peach, produced by The Phoenix Theatre.

Wonder Wall deals with some difficult issues. If these issues affect you, please seek assistance.

What if you had too much time, and no way to spend it; time passing with you not just locked in your home, but locked in your body, unable to move, unable to speak, unable to see or to interact with the people around you? What trauma would your mind refuse to return to? What would you be forced, despite yourself, to think about?

The Phoenix Theatre in Wollongong’s Coniston has always been a hub for experimental art that pushes the boundaries of what theatre can be. Therefore, Thomas Peach’s Wonder Wall seems the perfect fit to add to the theatre’s repetoire of supporting work from local artists.

Born out of the Isolation Creative Outlet established by Georgina Reed in 2020, Peach developed Wonder Wall as ‘a response to time and trauma.’ Directing a cast of five, Peach decided to keep the audience and the cast at a distance, a clear development due to the current situation in the world. As Peach tells us, ‘you will not see the cast until the curtain call at the end of the play. You will need to create the pictures yourself, using your own interpretation.’

So, how exactly then does Wonder Wall work? Through the use of a surround sound system, simple stage lighting and centre stage lighting rig complete with ascending and descending LED blue light; not forgetting some quality vocal talent.

Wonder Wall follows the auditory journey of three individuals confined to life support machines, crippled by a disease (never mentioned, but plainly obvious which disease it is) that has taken their breathing from them. Zeb (Elise Vohradsky) and Lachlan (Dominic Stone) are lucky enough to have the ability of speech and communication, whereas leading voice Jael (Katie Allen) has had all her ability to communicate stolen from her, confined to her own floating subconscious.
The trio are taken care of by Nurse Macbeth (Cathy Bates), an encouraging voice that bathes and sings to them but one which carries a false sense of comfort. Lurking in the shadows is Mr Schumble, a disabled, mentally disturbed patient who plays games with the trio for his own pleasure.
Accompanied with a trigger warning, the play does deal with some difficult issues involving sickness and sexual assault.

The creatives of Wonder Wall should be applauded for their ability to adapt to such a difficult situation for theatre; a time where the life of the theatre was itself being strangled. However, how effective is this piece of theatre that is the equivalent of a radio play in a theatrical space?

Whilst Peach has created an eloquently elaborate play that is as well written as it is spoken, one can’t help but think that the actual theatricality of the piece was forgotten somewhere along the line. The use of the lighting could have added to the writer’s words to add emphasis, which it never fully did – apart from a change of colour when violence occured. The random black outs and irregular use of the centre stage pole of light seemed confusing and disconnected from the words being spoken over the top, never fully managing to come together to form the visceral experience the team was working towards.

As for the idea of the piece, if this were released as a recorded radio play or streamed piece of theatre, it would have been a visceral experience to listen to, especially due to its themes and issues dealt with. Providing this comfort would have allowed more focus on its story and characters, instead of sitting in a space that felt largely empty.

Wonder Wall‘s cast has to be applauded for their vocal talents, which have clearly focused on portraying their characters’ emotional resonance due to the lack of body with which to portray their emotion and storytelling. Allen’s voice floats like caramel over the speakers, a direct juxtaposition to Jone’s Mr Schumble with his sinister macabre tones. Stone’s Lachlan and Vohradsky’s Zeb provide a majority of the conversations and clearly have chemistry bouncing back and forth between the two in their disembodied voices.
Apart from screaming directly into the microphones and blasting the speakers during an intense and emotional scene, there was not much that could be provided to the cast in terms of criticism, which is a feat in itself.

In its essence, Wonder Wall is a piece of theatre that stands as a direct result of the isolated world we lived through in 2020. It is a noble attempt, but one which thankfully (and hopefully) we will not have to replicate anytime soon.
If you are up to seeing a piece of experimental theatre, then Wonder Wall would be the most experimental piece of theatre you can see in the Illawarra at the moment. Otherwise, the cast should record this as a radio play a.s.a.p and release it to reach a wider audience and put those vocal talents out into the world.

Reviewer Rating

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Wonder Wall is running at The Phoenix Theatre until April 3

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