There should be more anger about this. For years, a conspiracy of government, churches and ‘charities’ ripped children from their parents – who were told they were going to loving homes – and shipped them across the oceans to populate the Empire.
This system continued until the not-too-distant past. Child migration remained policy until 1970, with Australia alone wanting 50,000 children to boost its population after the Second World War.
It’s this final wave of migrations that rising Australian playwright Tom Holloway tackles in Forget Me Not. The play tells the story of one former child migrant, Gerry, who was taken from his single mother as a toddler, shipped to Australia, and abused in what sounds like little more than a forced labour camp.
Now an adult, Gerry is broken beyond repair. He’s a broiling mass of self-loathing; unspeakable things happened to him. And it’s these unspoken traumas that fester just below the surface of the play, as its characters struggle to find their voice and to connect. Brutalised and uneducated, Gerry knows nothing except hard labour and pain, which he dulls with drink. Then he rages.
Egged on by daughter Sally, Gerry tracks down his mother, Mary, in a bid to find some peace or closure. The play’s strength lies in the truthful, compassionate portrayal of these two flawed and broken central characters. Holloway deftly handles the task of bringing this verbally and emotionally inarticulate yet complex man to life. He rarely finishes a sentence, struggles to get to the point. Completely unable to articulate his feelings, human connection remains frustratingly out of reach. What’s startling about watching Gerry is how rare it still is to see a character like this as the protagonist.
As compassionately as he’s written, he’s equally intelligently played by Russell Floyd, an imposing man, who plays the role without fear. And the scenes where he’s reunited with his long-lost mother, Mary, shine. In contrast to Gerry’s fractured speech, Mary, played by the fabulous Eleanor Bron, says anything and everything that pops into her head; words bursting out of her. Yet they never really connect. It’s all painfully believable as they dance around the subject, all small talk and anecdotes.
The effects of abuse travel down the generations to infect the play’s two other characters. But it doesn’t work quite as well at this remove. Gerry’s daughter Sally, played by Sarah Ridgeway, feels vaguely bossy and superior, while her do-gooder boyfriend, charity man Mark (Sargon Yelda), is strangely smug. It feels like an odd directorial decision to have them played so disagreeably. Sally’s has her own kind of emotional inarticulacy which feels artificial, while her desire to understand her father’s pain and her own grief seems tacked-on and, as result, it’s a struggle to make an emotional connection with her as a character.
There’s a coolness to the pair of them that’s mirrored in the production. Steven Atkinson’s staging plays out beneath a light box, which raises and lowers to frame the action, and occasionally flashes like a manual camera to blackout where loud, dramatic music accompanies scene changes. It’s big and bold, in a way which contrasts with the intimacy of the story.
And, while it’s clear the sleek, industrial-looking set by Lily Arnold is supposed to be bleak, it feels too chilly, too full of clever stuff: lightbulbs which flicker, furniture which moves by itself. As an attempt to delineate the play’s non-linear storytelling, it feels a little confusing. The mother and son’s reunion remains, like so many things here, frustratingly just out of reach; the audience, like Gerry, is denied the payoff in a play which, in keeping its emotional power just below the surface, never quite catches fire.