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The Disappearance: ‘Matilda’ for the New Generation

Despite its infant form, The Disappearance was a bittersweet tale of isolation, loneliness and love.

Photography by David Hooley.

On the third of May, I had the pleasure of visiting Newtown’s New Theatre, to watch a staged reading of The Disappearance, directed by Les Soloman. This one-time production was arranged in support of the Actors Benevolent fund. The seven cast members, who had only started formally rehearsing the production eight days prior, sat lined next to one another on the stage in front of the set of ‘All My Sons’, accompanied by a composer and a preliminary set of lighting. The script was an adaptation of ‘The Boy Who Could Make Himself Disappear’ by Kin Platt and the screenplay ‘Baxter!’ by Roger Moore. 

The story follows Roger (Gordon Vignelles), an American teenager suffering from a debilitating speech impediment, which mainly manifests in an inability to pronounce ‘R’s, making it particularly difficult to pronounce his own name. Roger’s family life is quickly established, first meeting Roger’s parents, Tom and Stella, in the heat of a fight. Roger and his mother soon move to Sydney, for seemingly no other reason than to get “away from your father”. Tom is largely absent and his mother, Stella, oscillates between disinterested and hostile. Attempts at connection are largely rebuffed by both parental figures and Roger often suffers at the hands of demeaning comments, such as his speech impediment referred to as “babytalk” and flippant declarations of “when are you going to get over that?”. 

As Roger transitions to life in Australia, he meets a variety of colourful characters, getting glimpses into lives full of love and passion greatly foreign from his own. There’s the eccentric girl across the street who describes Roger as “beautiful”; the “solid” speech therapist Dr Clemm who takes a genuine interest in Roger’s homelife and his two neighbours, model Christina and the aptly named Roger Tunnell, a French chef. The couple bring Roger into their lives, offering him love and friendship. The first time Christina says “I love you both”, she kisses them on the cheek, after which Roger holds his hand to where her lips were placed, a beautiful reminder of the significance of such a simple act.

While the characters occasionally veer slightly into caricature, the sheer talent of the actors involved was undeniable, the standouts being Vignelles and David Hooley, who played Tunnell. Hooley’s Roger was overflowing with charisma, injecting each scene with infectious life and energy. The staged reading format is an important reminder of the transformative power of a play’s production elements, such as a set, costume, sound and lighting, which so often go unrecognised in the theatre space — the most powerful moments occurred when the actors were accompanied by effective lighting and original music. With little production elements and only eight days of rehearsal, the ability of the cast and small crew to convey a story, which undoubtedly warmed the hearts of all in the room, is no small feat. I can only imagine what this team can produce after months of preparation.

In addition to being one of the oldest in Sydney, the New Theatre has long been an important player in the city’s theatre offerings. Despite their long years, they’ve never swayed from their core ethos “always real, always raw, always new”, and The Disappearance is no exception. This story of loneliness, isolation and mental health troubles is reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’, and would be powerful viewing for anyone, but particularly important to those currently living through this formative time. I dearly hope this play continues in development and is performed later this year, and would urge all everyone to attend and support local theatre.