When I first received an invitation to Louis Nowra’s ‘The Jungle’ no less than a week ago, the concept was intriguing but confusing. Maybe in my sleep-deprived post-$4.50-cup-noodle state at Melbourne Airport the concept of ‘being invited to spend 24 incredible hours in the heart of Sydney’s underbelly [Kings Cross]’ was taken a bit more literally than it should have been. I mean, I don’t have the strongest memories of pre-lockout law-era Sydney (for reasons that won’t be explored here), but I thought I got the gist of what the show was going for.
Now as I look back on what I saw, I still kind of think I get it. At its very roots, we as the audience are flies-on-the-wall in a sleazy Kings Cross landscape (well-set by Alex Holver’s lighting design of sultry red lights, neutral blues, and blinding phosphorous-hued sunlight), treated to vignettes of corrupt policemen, drug-addled sex workers, timid men with highly questionable fetishes, gay sons, abusive fathers, extremely unstable 60s pop stars, adulterous work colleagues, ‘aliens’, and people who wear jean shorts. What an incredible Australia Day lamb advertisement that would make. However, from those foundations, the show moves between satire, drama, and a combination of the two in a perplexing fashion, attempting to tie all its loose ends together whilst continuing to introduce new characters and concepts even at its very latest stages.
Before any criticism, the show has to be recognised as an impressive acting feat – 11 actors play 26 characters over the course of two hours. Just the thought of that is exhausting to me. From my understanding, the action tying most of the vignettes together revolves around Cameron’s (Gaurav Kharbanda) attempt to kill the person responsible for killing him (at least in what I believe is his drugged-out opinion), with the only lead a light blue jacket. In that process, a can of worms opens that brings more guests (with varying connections to the ever-complicating situation) to the figurative Australia Day BBQ. Of these guests, the audience can find solace in washed-up star Cynthia Page (Nicole Florio) and her assistant Vince (Hugo Schlander); as the show’s most commonly recurring characters, their tumultuous pethidine-addled-master/constantly-scrambling-servant relationship is a recentralising (and therefore welcome) presence. Thankfully their acting and voice work is strong enough to not only keep the audience entertained but also engaged. Equal praise must go to Benjamin Pierce; his scene-stealing performance as Jason makes for one of the show’s early highlights as he recounts his move from pethidine-dealing to abalone-dealing (somehow not the show’s weirdest progression). Guarav Kharbanda does what he can when he acts as homosexual AIDS patient Cameron, taunting his father Mark (Timothy Rochford) with a sort of crescendo as he graphically describes his various sexual experiences, but unfortunately receives a less than adequate reaction from his unnecessarily stiff and unresponsive scene partner, somewhat diluting the power of his standout performance. However, I have to give special praise to Mark J. Wilson, who plays 5 different roles (though mostly that of Tony, Fisheries and Wildlife inspector, son of Jo-Ann Pass’ Gloria, lisper and golden shower enthusiast). Socks and sandals footwear aside, he holds the show down at some of its strangest moments, dealing with the frankly bewildering (and variably-strong) sequences outlining his mother’s adoption of an ‘alien’ (Gabriela Castilo) and his own golden shower-turned-twisted-Kurt-Cobain-memorial with wet worker Hope (Romney Stanton) with the only semblance of relatability in the whole performance. When he was on stage, the audience knew how to react, and for that guidance (plus those fresh socks and sandals) he was warmly received.
In my opinion, though, the show faces significant difficulties in moving from vignette to vignette and attempting to connect them. Director Glen Hamilton and playwright Louis Nowra definitely know the basic idea of what they wanted to present, but it feels like they developed their characters more so than any kind of main story. This gives rise to scenes that, even though entertaining, could likely be shortened or done without. Take Mark Fisher. After addressing the obvious dispute with his son in the performance’s first half, this character’s only scene in the second is to make 13-year-old Holly (Castillo) and the audience very uncomfortable with a prolonged (and frankly rapey) slow dance. At this point, the show is a drama – but this moment or these characters are never referenced again, not contributing to any discernible plot point. Same goes for an affair between business owner Austin (Wilson) and finance professional Toni (Annelies Tjetjep); a subplot established early in the show but only referenced very close to its end, with both characters only strenuously attached to (what I think) is the main sequence of events and subsequently lacking any real development. Add in an investigation over crooked (and cheesily-moustached) cop Metzger’s (Andrew Singh) stolen heroin, in which his threats towards hooker Nikki (Castilo) – in what I can only assume is a brothel, based off the occasional offstage moan (courtesy of Sound Designer Damian Ryan) – are lines and actions I’m still not sure whether to consider as satire or drama, and my misunderstanding is clear. As vignettes, they’re great; but together, they lack a unity I think was (somewhat) intended by the show’s leading crew.
Ultimately, I think it best to consider ‘The Jungle’ as a particularly strong set of individual stories that are better viewed whilst avoiding the natural urge to figure out exactly how they fit together. The idea is definitely there, and the performances are more than watchable, but it must be approached with that mindset if one is to get the most out of it. If you can do that, then brave the rain, throw on your most promiscuous top, strappiest sandals, cheesiest fake moustache and enjoy.
Or maybe just see it in normal clothes. Surry Hills is a bit of a weird place.