When the Rain Stops Falling, by Andrew Bovell | Directed by Rachel Chant

New Theatre | New Theatre, Newtown, Sydney | Until 18 April

I didn’t see the Brink Theatre version of Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling in 2009, but by all accounts it was stunning. In fact, I walked into New Theatre’s production with very little knowledge other than the précis provided in the advertising, great respect for Bovell’s writing (Speaking in Tongues, aka Lantana in movie form), and curiosity as to how such a complex story could be played out in such limited space.

Two hours later I walked out of the theatre astounded, blinking back tears.

As in Speaking in Tongues, Bovell creates a complex story — but with When the Rain Stops Falling the intricacy of the relationships is heightened by the play spanning a period of 80 years.

The first scene sets the pace with a sharp, disorienting glimpse into the future — 2039, in fact. A confusion of umbrellas, pounding rain, a scream — and a fish, falling from the sky.

Time then shifts back and forth from 1959. Older and younger versions of the same character appear on stage simultaneously, highlighting the point that escaping our past is impossible. Scenes shift from Alice Springs to London. Gradually the threads draw together as a series of tragic, bleak and disturbing connections are made.

Young Londoner Gabriel Law (Tom Conroy) wants to know about his father Henry (David Woodland), who disappeared while Gabriel was a child. His mother Elizabeth (Helen Tonkin) refuses to talk about him.

Using a series of postcards as a guide, Gabriel travels to Australia, where he sets off through the vastness of the Coorong to Uluru, retracing his father’s path. Along the way he meets Gabrielle York (Renae Small), a young woman dealing with her own tragedy: the loss of brother, mother and father.

Bovell skillfully places the missing pieces of this drama one by one, slowly drawing out the devastating truth. If, like me, you go into this production not knowing the outcome, the moment of revelation is shockingly raw. In fact, when it hit, I closed my eyes in the subsequent blackout, and swore silently into the dark.

Rachel Chant’s direction of a strong cast is tight and intelligent. She allows Bovell’s beautiful writing to lead the way, and has drawn fine performances in particular from Conroy, Small, Woodland and the younger Elizabeth Law (Hailey McQueen), as she descends into alcoholism.

The minimalist staging is hugely effective for a production that spans diverse locations. Clever use of angled panels and lighting make dawn at Uluru as possible as a dingy London flat. On occasion at New Theatre sound levels have been intrusive, but for this production it was just right — and the final music was perfect, haunting me out into the foyer where I couldn’t speak for several minutes.

The apocalyptic deluge that opens the play clears as the final scene returns to the future — a hope for reconciliation. The hope that although the ghosts of the past may sit at the table with us, they need not be terrifying; that they can be greeted with compassion, compassion that can be extended to ourselves and how we got to where we now sit.