The McNeil Project

Words – Jerram Wurlod

Photos – Jai Robertson

Wattle We Do Next Productions – The McNeil Project. WRITER Jim McNeil DIRECTOR Malcolm Robertson CAST Will Ewing, Luke McKenzie, Cain Thompson, Richard Bligh. At fortyfive downstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD, until July 29th.

The murky depth of the 45downstairs theatre space is the perfect location for this prison play by Jim McNeil. Originally written over 30 years ago while he was a prisoner in a Parramatta jail, the play presents us with an unnerving, harsh and sometimes amusing insight into prison life. The McNeil Project presents two of Jims more renowned plays, The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice. Set inside a prison cell, we are taken on a rollercoaster ride of testosterone, anger and undercurrent of tenderness that continues to try and push its way to the forefront, only to be beaten back by fear and insecurity. The Chocolate Frog introduces two hardened crims played by Luke McKenzie and Cain Thompson whose night becomes an engaging firefight when a green-eared youngster played by Will Ewing arrives and is given a crash course in the rules that are so rigorously upheld in prison life. Not to be out muscled though, Ewing’s character sticks fast to his outside world convictions. The ensuing merry-go-round of arguments about the rules of the outside verses the rules of the inside reaches fever pitch until its defused as quickly as it began.

The Old Familiar Juice has McKenzie continue his character and introduces Richard Bligh’s fantastic performance as a likeable old crook. Thompson adopts a completely different intelligent yet inexperienced and fragile character. This play ups the anti with a more complex and exhausting dynamic between the three characters with an unsettling conclusion. Both plays do a fantastic job of unveiling the complexity of individuals and their relationships to each other. We see the way in which peoples personal issues are forced to boiling point by the circumstances of being in prison, however brief or long that may be. We’re asked to consider how the rules that govern prison life relate to the outside world and vice versa. Even though the characters have been subjected to the constricting environment of prison, this doesn’t stop the deep seeded issues of each individual coming to the surface in an often ugly and disturbing display. I found myself feeling psychologically beaten and bruised by McKenzie’s constant harassment and aggression, wanting to escape his increasingly claustrophobic presence. It’s a fantastic performance, one that is sure to stick with you for some time and certainly deserves the positive attention it has received since opening. The McNeil Project runs Tuesday to Saturday 8pm and Sundays 5pm until the 29th of July.