Queensland Theatre’s adaptation of the memoir Boy, Lost is a powerful examination of the price of removing children from their families. By Yen-Rong Wong.
Content warning: mentions of domestic violence, sexual abuse, child abuse, descriptions of ableist behaviour.
Adapted by Katherine Lyall-Watson from Kristina Olsson’s memoir of the same name, Boy, Lost is a poignant exploration of the nature of family secrets and the sometimes tragic consequences of keeping them. Caroline Dunphy and Kristen Maloney’s production is tender and unflinching as it tackles the fraught topics of domestic violence, sexual abuse and child abuse. The intimacy of Queensland Theatre’s Diane Cilento Studio heightens the play’s impact – the actors’ proximity to the audience generates an intense experience for all involved.
This story takes place across 40 years. Even though the many time jumps within the play are signposted, it can still, at times, feel chaotic. This isn’t necessarily to the work’s detriment – the fragmented way in which the audience receives the story mimics how information must have filtered through the family in real life. For a more organised version, banners in the foyer present the play’s events in chronological order and include extra information about polio and the systematic removal of children from their parents in the 1950s.
The cast begins and ends the play in black and grey clothing – a neutral palette representative of the fact that this story could happen to anyone. Each cast member introduces themselves, ending with Zoe Houghton, who reveals that she is a member of the family that the play is about. Houghton plays the narrator and also her own aunt, Sharon, whose inquisitiveness is in equal measures endearing and distressing as her questions uncover uncomfortable truths that her mother would rather remained hidden.
Michael, in a nuanced performance from Stephen Geronimos, is an alcoholic gambler who physically and verbally abuses his first and second wives and his children. We see him sweep a teenage Yvonne (Hsiao-Ling Tang) off her feet, luring her away from her family with promises of prosperity.
The story shifts between the lives of Yvonne and her son, Peter (Morgan Francis). Yvonne tries to suppress her memories from her traumatic first marriage to Michael, when her only comfort was that her firstborn son would be treated like a Greek prince by his father. Unfortunately, Peter contracts polio when he is two, which leaves him unable to walk or run properly and the target of constant ridicule.
Michael’s violence towards his son escalates as the play progresses. These harrowing acts are accentuated by Guy Webster’s sound design, in which slaps and shoves are punctuated by ominous silences, physically and sonically laying bare the contrast between speaking out and staying quiet. Francis is also the production’s composer, and his songs weave through the show, reflecting the push and pull of emotion at the heart of the play.
Because of his father’s violence, Peter often runs away from home, and spends much of his childhood on the streets or being shifted from one institution to another. He experiences physical and sexual abuse and quickly becomes attuned to the often transactional nature of human interactions. Francis is steely and vulnerable in these scenes. He sparkles during Peter’s fleeting moments of happiness, such as when he meets his first friends, Stevie and Gary, or when he truly feels safe for the first time. He moves deftly around the set, which is populated by wooden boxes of different sizes that are stacked and restacked, transforming into different props. In David Walters’ lighting design these boxes double as handheld light boxes, and are used to dramatic effect in a scene where Peter’s leg is operated on unsuccessfully by a team of government doctors.
The cast’s fluid costume changes – signalling the shifts as performers move between roles – showcase the beauty of physical theatre when it’s done well. Designer Penny Challen’s dresses – most of which are adorned with brightly coloured flowers emblematic of the time – are donned and removed with ease.
Colin Smith is delightful in his complete embodiment of the multiple characters he portrays. As Ronnie, Yvonne’s mother, he is blunt to the point of cruelty: she refuses to help her daughter, insisting that Yvonne lie in the bed she’d made for herself. Smith still manages to make her sympathetic – Ronnie has six children of her own to look after and this tough-love approach is no doubt representative of parental attitudes of the time. Smith is kind as the reverend who takes Peter in during one of his stints on the streets and is compassionate, gentle and loving as Arnie, Yvonne’s second husband.
Smith and Tang have great chemistry on stage. Tang’s performance of the consequences of trauma is compelling in scenes where Yvonne refuses to let her husband see her undressed with the lights on, hurts herself while trying to scrub herself clean or when she is having a panic attack on the train – the place where Peter was snatched when she escaped from Michael. Three white banners hang from the ceiling to act as shadow screens for some of these more confronting scenes.
We now know that psychological and emotional traumas can be handed down from generation to generation. There is trauma in the very act of keeping secrets, both for the people keeping the secrets and those from whom the secrets are kept. Peter’s removal from his mother was not government-sanctioned, as it was for many First Nations or disabled children at the time, but this does not lessen its impacts on him or his family.
Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations plays over the epilogue, a reminder that such atrocities are not relics of the past. It is sobering that not much has changed in the 70 years since Peter was taken from his mother’s arms; children from all walks of life are still removed from their families, a disproportionate number being First Nations. In 2021 they represented 42.2 per cent of children in out-of-home or state care, even though 6 per cent of children in the general population are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.
It is especially important that the play does not end with just a brief note on how Peter is doing now but calls out the fact that institutional discrimination against First Nations children – as well as those who are refugees, disabled or poor – continues to this day. The personal is always political, and it is clear that everyone involved in the play is aware of its place in Australia’s political landscape.
To talk about something is to admit that it’s real. Productions such as Boy, Lost keep these issues fresh in our collective consciousness and ask us to sit with the discomfort they produce – to ask ourselves how we are complicit in these systems and how we can be better.
Boy, Lost plays at Queensland Theatre’s Diane Cilento Studio until November 19.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2022 as "Secrets and loss".
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