The Washing Line

Script reworked by Dave Carey and Bethany Hamlin from the Chickenshed devised production What's Wrong With Jim. Music and lyrics by Dave Carey and Paul Morrall
Rayne Theatre Chickenshed

The Washing Line Credit: Mark Field
Vernon (Alex Brennan) and Jessie (Lara Decaro) Credit: Mark Field
The Washing Line Credit: Mark Field

There’s no missing the horror in Chickenshed’s production of The Washing Line. It’s there as you take your seats, in the scattered bodies of performers representing the deaths of nearly a thousand people in 1978 at Jim Jones's People’s Temple in Guyana, many of them from cyanide, some by a bullet.

The show takes us back to earlier times before this terrible moment, to a joyous revivalist communal singing, where the sinister figure of Jim Jones (Jonny Morton) stands on a platform high above the performers, his dark sunglasses and hair dyed black contrasting with his white shirt and cream trousers.

But the musical score of Dave Carey generally shifts to an unsettling, heavier rhythmic sound led by bass guitar and drum. You may at one point catch a touch of the psychedelic hippie era, but mostly experience the layered samples of Marvin Gaye's "What’s Going On", as if it and the instrumentation of "Rider’s on the Storm" by the Doors had mutated into a future dystopian rave.

The audience watches from either side of the traverse performance space, so close to the mass of dancers they might trip them with an outstretched leg. Huge screens at either end of the traverse corridor flash pictures of the American tragedy that drove these people to seek sanctuary in Guyana. There are pictures of civil rights and anti-Vietnam war protests including the murder by the National Guard of students at Kent State University.

At one end of the traverse, the investigators Johnson (Jimmy Adamson), Murphy (Finn Waters) and Smith (Peter Emington) are sometimes shown trying to piece together what happened and why people succumbed to the call of Jones. They are told it was a yearning for social justice that included everyone regardless of sex or race. And the booming voice of Jones from his spotlit platform at the other end of the traverse chillingly adds to those reasons his call to “fill this atmosphere with warmth and love.”

Very occasionally, we get something more private, more personal, as when Vernon (Alex Brennan) and Jessie (Lara Decaro) gently discuss why they are there, getting closer to each other, even though Vernon is deciding to leave the community.

There is also Sebastian Gonzalez as Congressman Ryan with a media team arriving at the community to check out the reports of abuse and the forced detention of those who want to leave. Their visit will increase the paranoia and defensiveness of people already in exile from what they regard as a brutal America.

The show offers no definitive answer to why this exiled community of Americans was formed and died. It simply chronicles with a powerful musical score, impressive choreography and a number of brief dramatic scenes a terrible tragedy that continues to be among the events that haunt a troubled America.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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