Review: Gruesome Playground Injuries

A dark and unbound comedy

By Owen James

For Doug and Kayleen, physical pain is the cornerstone of their fragmented but lifelong relationship, always bringing them together and pushing them apart. New York playwright Rajiv Joseph has deconstructed this powerful and torturous obsession in Gruesome Playground Injuries, a dark comedy that presents segmented and unordered glimpses of these characters’ relationship between the ages of seven and thirty-seven.

Director Jessica Dick has masterfully constructed each vignette, connecting the puzzle pieces of Joseph’s script with heart and affection. Dick has ensured that as we see this relationship evolve, our understanding of them as both individuals and as a shared entity deepens. Their meetings and injuries are sometimes coincidental and sometimes quite decisively premeditated, but they would be lost without each other.

Each sequence is connected with precisely choreographed movement as the characters drift between years and locations. These moments are beautifully designed and allow space for audience reflection on each scene before. Combined with stunning compositions from sound designer Joshua Bliss, each transition is treated to a Lynchian paradise that makes these shifts between age and tone interesting and engaging.

Both Christian Charisiou and Laura McIntosh are highly capable of presenting these two unbalanced and traumatised characters. They find great humour in each scene – especially when playing young children – and reflect truth in two characters that could quite easily be simple and comical. Charisiou (also the producer) has crafted a chilling character in hostile, self-destructive Doug. His presumptuous and cocky attitude is what ultimately perpetuates the narrative, demonstrating his strength and propulsive power as an actor.

Laura McIntosh’s defensive Kayleen struggles to comprehend anarchic Doug, but yet is fascinated and soothed by him. McIntosh delivers mesmerising monologues and embraces Kayleen’s turbulent journey with vigour and warmth. Together, McIntosh and Charisiou construct an unlikely though believable pair, delivering detailed performances that well and truly sustain this two-hander.

The transformative properties of the versatile Loft Theatre at Chapel Off Chapel never cease to amaze me. I’ve seen over a dozen shows in this space, with each production delivering a totally unique design, making you feel like you are in a different space each time. Production designer Ella Butler has created a unique and imaginative set that reminds me initially of an Operation game board, with dozens of resourceful and reusable props scattered throughout the space atop a flat white base.

Special effects by Courtney Clarke are startlingly realistic and highly effective, with macabre wounds and scars applied by the actors themselves onstage. Sound design by Joshua Bliss as mentioned earlier is extremely powerful, cinematic and reflective. Faint background noise in different scenes cements the constantly shifting location and creates realistic environments.

This nonlinear “jumbled chronology” of events leaves us to ponder destiny and coincidence: were these two fated to magnetise together even from the first scene of untainted childhood innocence? Did they resist a cosmic force or simply drift apart? By choice, or by chance?

As they are impaled on various objects, they are also impaled on each other’s psyches. Between firework mishaps, self-harm and romantic infection, the play draws us into this united lifetime of disaster and tells the story of how two people simply came to understand the other’s pain, and why they so deeply need it to survive. It’s a moving and extremely successful production that will stay with you long after it ends.

Gruesome Playground Injuries being performed 10 – 20 October at Chapel Off Chapel. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 8290 7000.

Photograph: Sanjeev Singh