It’s 2019. A private aged-care facility.

Helen, a bed-bound elderly woman, talks with her son and daughter-in-law about getting an upgrade on her television package. It’s her only connection to the outside world and otherwise all she’ll binge is network detective shows. There was an episode about an old woman who disappeared from her nursing home and she wasn’t missed for days.

A young support worker, Sandhya, comes in to give Helen a bath and that’s enough of a prompt to get her visitors to leave for the day. They’ve got things to do at home, after all. And that’s why they’ve moved Helen into aged care, because someone else can look after her there.

The scene between Helen and Sandhya is played behind plastic sheeting, both evocative of hospital curtains and also nothing like them. We can see Sanhya tending to Helen, cleaning her, massaging her, helping Helen to be as comfortable as possible – all while Helen makes passive aggressive comments about Sandhya’s heritage. An old woman being helped in her final years by a woman of colour, whose life experience is entirely different.

This moment is the heart of the play and probably the most clear and concise in its drama and purpose. It’s touching and moving; Helen needs help and is glad of it, since she feels like her son has abandoned her. But she doesn’t treat Sandhya well and, as we learn later, the young woman is stuck in this job, desperate to keep it to attain permanent residency in Australia. She’s making just enough money to live in a share house and send some to her family back in India.

Outside of the nursing home, we meet Sandhya’s friend Neela, and later, an Indian-Australian doctor, Priya, who is in charge of the aged-care facility where Sandhya works and where we discover Helen has recently died. Her death is under review and investigation.

Telling one story from multiple points of view is a potent idea; we all bring our own backgrounds and experiences to a situation. Our relative power, influence and privilege colours how we act and react. Sandhya is scared for her job and the small life she has carved out in Melbourne. Neela has escaped to the Gold Coast to get away from thinking about Helen’s death. And Priya is worried about the reputation of her facility, but not as much as her husband, James, who really wants her to foist all responsibility on the untrained care workers.

Crocodiles, the play, feels unfinished. Not just because the end appears out of nowhere, but because the rich and important ideas inside the premise don’t feel adequately explored. The microaggressions between patient and low-paid workers (mirrored later between Doctor and UberEats delivery driver) paint a portrait of this situation that is fascinating but doesn’t add up to anything in a dramatic sense.

There is a lot of great detail about the differences between Australian and Indian culture, especially with regard to how we treat our elderly relatives, but it doesn’t lead anywhere.

And the production feels rough around the edges. The transitions are slow. The show seems dwarfed by the big space it’s in. And after a show stop for technical difficulties on the night I saw it, everyone felt a bit out of sorts. The tone of the show is odd, never settling, always trying out new things.

The cast, who are normally all top notch, didn’t bring the kind of spark I expect from them. Theatre company, Elbow Room, produce wonderful independent theatre every year in Melbourne and have for a long time. This show did not reach the quality I expect from their work.

Throughout the show, the passage of time is delineated by projected text. As we watch the dates march through 2019, as the investigation slowly progresses, I kept thinking the play might reach 2020 and the absolute disaster that the pandemic wrought on the aged-care sector. The play was conceived of pre-pandemic and its central ingredient – low-paid care-workers being ground up by the system – is still a vital topic to be discussed.

But it’s hard to not watch them get closer and closer to the disaster and have the play just end. I know this play isn’t about the pandemic but fixing it so explicitly in 2019 set up an expectation that just wasn’t delivered on. Perhaps if the dates weren’t there at all, I wouldn’t have been waiting for something to be made out of them.

Crocodiles circles around some great ideas, but never lands on them. It feels like a work-in-progress that needs to find clarity in further development.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Crocodiles continues at Northcote Town Hall until June 4.

Photo: Cameron Grant