REVIEW: kerosene/SIRENS by Benjamin Nichol

Millie grew up in Lilydale, raised by her grandfather, who is probably gay but also really old, and not equipped to help her through the trials of teenage-girl life.

Eden has grown up in a beach-side town. He is gay and his parents are very supportive but his life is an endless series of part-time jobs and hook-ups with men in town on holiday.

Millie would do anything for her best friend Annie.

Eden will do anything to get off, but beyond short-term pleasure, his only other outlet is singing church songs with his mum on special occasions.

Millie and Eden are the central figures in two acclaimed plays by Benjamin Nichol, kerosene and SIRENS, currently playing at fortyfive downstairs.

kerosene was first produced in 2021 and received multiple Green Room award nominations, winning two: best production and best direction. SIRENS was first staged in 2022 as part of Melbourne Fringe and got excellent reviews.

I missed the first go-around of kerosene but I did see SIRENS – my original review is here.

Theatre company, VIMH (Voice in My Hands), has remounted the plays this year, paired together for the first time, perfect complements to each other. Two characters, growing up with little money, little support and few prospects, their lives might be worlds apart, but they feel of a piece.

kerosene’s Millie is embodied by Izabella Yena, full of energy, lashing out at the world but having fun along the way. She might not have boys hanging off her like Annie does, but she doesn’t quite know why. She’s happy to filter out the boys who aren’t good enough for her best friend, though. Tell Annie what she really thinks.

That gets harder as they get older and when Annie moves to Sunshine with a guy that Millie hates, the friendship might be all over. Even if they did grow up together and Annie wears Millie’s opal necklace always.

Nichol’s writing in both plays is delicate; the characters are richly drawn, but how we are meant to feel about them is never made explicit. I admire the assured hand Nichol has; creating two knotty, complicated characters, both with sharp edges and deep-seated pain.

Izabella Yena’s performance is stunning. Not a false note or moment; the audience is in her hands from the start and she never lets us go. Active, present, clear and bold – a truly stunning depiction of a woman who thinks of herself as not smart, but who ends up being very resourceful. Driven, angry and loyal to a fault.

I was pleased to see SIRENS again, one of the highlights of Melbourne Fringe last year. Jumping from a room at Trades Hall into the space at fortyfive downstairs gives it room to breathe and makes the indelible tableaux even more striking. I cannot remember if the singing was amplified during Fringe, but this time around with directional mics, I felt Eden’s moving songs even more affecting.

The ending of kerosene is powerful and the end of SIRENS is that kind of inevitable deflation for character and audience that doesn’t quite feel satisfying, even if it is right for Eden’s story.

Black curtains, painterly lighting from Harrie Hogan, subtle sound composition from Connor Ross, with a pair of astute directors guiding each play, the double-bill of kerosene and SIRENS is theatre at its most stripped back and its most potent. As plays by themselves, they are wonderfully affective. In a one-two punch, they are quietly devastating.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

kerosene and SIRENS closed today. Here’s hoping they can live on together in the future. 

Photos: Darren Gill