At Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre – Big Talent in ‘The Big Dry’

A world ravaged by dust storms and water shortage is a powerful backdrop to the story of three young people abandoned by their parents and facing survival. Based on the acclaimed novel by author Tony Davis adapted by Mark Kilmurry, ‘The Big Dry’ is gripping theatre that opens discussion about climate change, family, scarcity of food and water, stranger-danger, young people vulnerable to adult power, loyalty, courage and survival.

The big brother George is afraid but stoically protective of his younger brother Beeper as they face intruders, famine and drought. Their bond is poignant. When the feisty Emily forces her way into their lives, there are challenges as they create a new ‘family’ to battle their hostile world.

The Ensemble Theatre in an innovative collaboration with the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) produced exciting theatre which has audiences waiting on the edge of their seats as George, Beeper and Emily meet the challenges of choking dust explosions in a hostile climate of man and nature.

Mark Kilmurry’s sensitive adaptation of ‘The Big Dry’ translated Tony Davis’ novel, into powerful theatre. Fraser Corfield, Director of ATYP brought out strong and sensitive performances from his young actors. Sophia Nolan playing Emily was emotional complex as she alternated between warrior and defender, to vulnerable girl wanting family. Rory Potter playing George was so believable as the terrified protector of Beeper played by Jack Andrew, who gave an outstanding performance as the innocent brother.

‘The Big Dry’ the book is a must-read. ‘The Big Dry’ the play is a must-see.

Reviewer: Susanne Gervay


An interview with the author Tony Davis gives insights into his process of creating ‘The Big Dry.’

  1. Why did you write ‘The Big Dry’?

It was just a coincidence between me reading various books on the American Dustbowl, a subject which has always fascinated me, and an already developing wish to write a story about the dynamic between two brothers. Suddenly the two streams re merged. The characters of George and Beeper were created by imaging how my oldest and youngest son (then about the ages of the characters) would behave if they had to fend for themselves in the worst circumstances. The character of Emily, the girl who comes to stay, materialised in the writing process.

  1. Did you research? What and how?

Because it was a made-up world – a modern city in the throes of something akin to the dustbowl – I didn’t need to do a lot more than create the spirit of that environmental disaster and transpose it to today. I also needed to come up with lots and lots of different words for dust!

  1. Climate change has created a desolate landscape in ‘The Big Dry’. How did you want your audience to react to this?

The only explanation about what has happened to the world in the book (and play) is a rather ham-fisted one by the older brother, George. It has been going on long enough that they just accept it as the reality and rarely question the cause. The last thing I wanted was a preachy book. Readers, and viewers, can make their own mind up about the background; the real focus is on young people’s response to a world that is falling apart.

  1. What was the driver of abandonment by parents and adults where the 3 young people are left to survive alone?

The missing parents situation is a mainstay of children’s literature, for obvious reasons. My main aim was to try to do it a little differently. George’s struggle to keep his younger brother safe, despite lacking the experience and confidence, is at the heart of the book, and now at the heart of the play.

  1. Is there is a relationship to the ‘stolen generation’, ‘boy soldiers’, exploitation of children, where the government authorities take children to be sold to the wet countries. Was that your intent? If so why?

The exploitation of children and the fencing off of the good places in the world (the so-called “wet countries”) is hinted at more in the book i think, particularly in the dialogue from the more world-wise Emily. I’m so close to it now I struggle to work out just how much is implied in the play version which, like all good theatre works, has gone through a string of changes since the early table reads. The ending on opening night, for example, was the fourth they had tried. One intent in the book was to tell the story of people fleeing a tough situation, or trying to, not by making the young Western reader imagine he or she were a Hazara Afghan (for example) but by reversing the wealth of nations. If water is the most valuable thing in the world, then just because you live in a prosperous and advanced country suddenly isn’t the advantage is used to be. Getting to another place, no matter what the dangers, starts becoming a raison d’etre.

  1. What role did you have in the adaptation to a play by Mark Kilmurry?

I was mainly a spectator. The director, Fraser Corfield, kindly invited me to see as much of the lead-up as I had time for and I went to a couple of table reads, two rehearsals and a preview. He and the actors asked for my opinion of various things. I was quite reticent to give it because they were bringing to life Mark Kilmurry’s script, not my book. Maybe I added a thing or two that was useful, but just tiny things around the edges.

  1. Are you satisfied with the adaptation and why?

Yes. I think it is extraordinary. Mark and Fraser were a bit apologetic about drifting at times from the book. I however thought it was absolutely essential to make as many changes as needed to make the story work in the new medium. Anyway, the characters and situation are always faithful to the spirit of the book, despite some plot differences.

The Big Dry: Shortlisted in NSW Premier’s Awards and Aurealis Awards for Speculative Fiction

Leave a Reply