Starring: Leah Purcell, Shari Sebbens, and Miranda Tapsell

Chris McKay

There’s darkness at the heart of Radiance that never gets to consume in the way it deserves to. This is the first production from the Belvoir Street Theatre Company this year, and it’s easy to see why it would be chosen to open 2015. Louis Nowra is an established and much-loved Australian playwright. The show’s premise also allows for a lot of growth in the characters — three sisters return to their childhood home in far north Queensland for their mother’s funeral and it is made clear that theirs was not a happy home. Sure enough, secrets emerge as relationships unravel and reforge. The show touches on several important and universal themes —death, sorority, and prejudice — but they seem underutilised. It is clearly a passion project for Leah Purcell, the show’s director who also plays the eldest of the three sisters.

The trouble is there’s very little that’s new with this show. Its script requires the actors not merely embody the characters but also convey some larger significance to the audience. In the first sense, the three actresses (Purcell, Shari Sebbens, and Miranda Tapsell) succeed. There is passion and conviction in every line, every movement. But for all the energy and belief the actresses brought to their roles, I didn’t believe their performances as a whole. There was a considerable disconnect between performance and audience. And it didn’t help that roughly three quarters of the play felt like a set-up for a pair of powerful monologues that didn’t occur until the end. As mentioned above, there are some potent and dark ideas at work in the play, but we only get a glimpse of them. They are too few, and come too late. In this last scene, both Purcell and Sebbens shine. Prior to that, however, Tapsell’s wonderful devil-may-care youngest sister was the only thing keeping my attention. While you can’t fault the actresses on their passion or conviction, the performances were inconsistent.

This inconsistency extends throughout the technical aspects of the play — every moment of genuine emotion (and there are some beautiful ones) is offset between sequences that feel terribly contrived. Whenever I found myself starting to get lost in a moment, unnatural and stilted blocking dragged me right out. But never was I dragged out from the world of the play more than in the scene changes. For a play set in two locations with minimal scenery, you’d think transitioning would be straightforward. For whatever reason, however, the production dims the lights just enough the keep the actresses movements visible, and blares out-of-place music for the duration of the change. There is presumably a justification for all of this, but ultimately it felt ill-considered.

For all my complaints, however, Radiance may succeed where it matters most. It is, after all, the first show for Belvoir this year, and for those unfamiliar with local Sydney theatre, particularly with Belvoir’s style of show, it may be the perfect introduction. For those looking for something new or challenging, the production may not appeal.

The Verdict: For those looking to start their new year by getting into theatre, Radiance offers solid performances and serves as an excellent introduction. For those already familiar, it will have limited appeal.