Despite a few bumps along the way, this Elvis-inspired tale of love-and-armed robbery is still a road worth travelling
When you’re young and living in an unnamed rural Australian town, options can seem pretty limited. You can marry a truck driver or get knocked up by the local chemist. You can screw around on your wife or you can hold up your workplace for ten grand and a plane ticket to Graceland. The characters in True Love Travels on a Gravel Road (a mouthful of a title and not particularly accurate) try all of these things and none of it helps much. Escape is not an option.
Maggie (the excellent Emily Goddard) is married to Trevor but head over heels for Jake (Glenn van Oosterom), or at least for what Jake is willing to do for her. Her mum, tough-talking Glenda (Elizabeth McColl), has instilled a love of Elvis in her daughter, especially Elvis the actor, and playwright Jane Miller brilliantly weaves a number of Elvis’ star turns into the dialogue. Elvis is inspiration and goal, both King and God, and Maggie gets it into her head that Graceland would represent a kind of Shangri-La for young love. Or perhaps a paradise lost. Jake decides to do what it takes to get them there.
In counter-point to the impulsiveness of Maggie and Jake, Miller offers us another relationship in Sam (Chris Broadstock) and Angie (Marnie Gibson). Hapless and ambivalent, Sam marries Angie but can’t really accept that she will stay. He’s constantly preempting their break-up, much to Angie’s understandable frustration. At one point he says to her ‘I imagine you leaving and having millions of options’. What he neglects to see is that for Angie options are irrelevant. She’s made her choice.
The cast is rounded out by Richard (David Kambouris), a local arms dealer and the one who provides the Chekhovian gun that is bound to go off before the night is through. Although the mood here is more Raising Arizona than Uncle Vanya.
Miller’s strength as a writer is in her monologues. The play is strongest when Maggie and Sam address the audience directly. Goddard in particular manages to invest her character with a dark and suggestive subtlety, at once innocent naïf and dangerous siren. It’s unfortunate she isn’t in it more. The play is on less stable footing when it tries to negotiate action. The central scene is a hold-up, a tense and dramatically rich scenario that is largely overplayed and eventually pushed into the realms of pure farce.
True Love Travels on a Gravel Road is billed as a comedy drama, and herein lies the problem. Large tonal shifts require a delicate hand, but also a kind of boldness. The comedy needs to feed off and enrich the drama, but here they seem at loggerheads. The playing styles jar, and the drama is the primary casualty. I feel the fault lies with the director (Beng Oh), who encourages broad and unconvincing performances from the majority of his cast. He plays up the silliness in the script at the expense of the grit. It’s a pity, because when McColl and Kambouris in particular are allowed to drop the clowning towards the end of the play they prove to be capable and winning actors.
The corrugated iron set is fantastic, and the vaguely sinister background score goes some way to building a menacing atmosphere. It’s a shame that the darker impulses of the script are left untapped, because True Love Travels on a Gravel Road has the potential to shock and move an audience, not just provide some diversionary laughs. The options are unlimited, even if the choices may be flawed.