Mum is a hoarder, and for her birthday, her three children – Teresa , Natalie and Toby – are putting their collective foot down. Dangerous piles of boxes reach up to the ceiling like ominous spires; there’s a rat infestation in the kitchen; the neighbours are complaining. It’s an intervention with a skip bin. The mess has got to go.
Of course, this 60th birthday surprise goes over about as well as you might expect, and it’s the point of ignition for Torch the Place, the first play from writer, broadcaster and creator of SBS series The Family Law, Benjamin Law.
Family is the whole world in this play – Teresa’s partner Paul (Max Brown) has rolled up his sleeves to help, too – but Mum (Diana Lin) is the centre of the world, a single mother whose children have grown up into lives of their own. Teresa (Fiona Choi) is a teacher who has been going through a painful IVF process. Natalie (Michelle Lim Davidson) is a frequently traveling social media influencer (though she prefers the term “brand ambassador”). Toby (Charles Wu) lives in the big smoke of Brisbane, where he’s a social worker; he’s yet to come out to his Mum.
Mum is a formidable figure against towering stacks of magazines and old hats, and Lin is dazzling in the role; you can’t take your eyes off her. Recovering from cancer treatment, a longtime survivor of a lonely move from China to the Gold Coast in a difficult marriage, she resists this clean-up and clear-out mightily, and it isn’t long before old wounds break open and long-simmering conflicts are brought to boil.
Torch the Place digs deep into the emotional boxes we lug around: the ones stuffed with too-hard-basket conversations around mental health and isolation, family scars, and the empty promise of things-as-saviour in a messy, capitalist Australia.
In his 2010 memoir, The Family Law, Law talks about his own family’s hoarding: “We were sentimental to the point that it became pathological … Mum kept everything.” The play crackles with the tension between memory and talisman, obsession and disorder. There’s nothing simple here; hoarding often develops after suffering displacement, trauma, or loss, and in this family, all of the above applies.
Law’s deceptively warm comic tone, all gentle exasperation and quick-witted dialogue, is disarming. He barrels past hallucinatory fantasy sequences (suddenly we’re in a game show!) and heart-tugging family memories (watching Mulan on VHS) to land in the deep end of emotional truth. Funny, eccentric Mum has been through some darkness, and the kids, now old enough to understand the complexity of adult life, start to learn more about her as they sift through boxes. It’s a play that settles in your gut and creeps into your heart.
Dean Bryant directs with a humanity-first approach, illuminating Law’s richly drawn characters and letting them shine – the cast works together so well they feel like a family, and their shared, affectionate shorthand is irresistible. Isabel Hudson’s set is a cramped, overstuffed home that feels impossible and imposing and yet still recognisable – there’s a heart in it. There’s always a heart. Clemence Williams’ compositions and sound design could raise the hairs on the back of your neck, as 80s jams and Disney princess tracks melt and remix themselves into distorted, emotional noise.
There’s a rhythm and structure to family dramas, a long-standing genre with a playwriting playbook that demands certain things of a story: a quick definition of family dynamic and differences, a balance of reminiscence and conflict, and an escalation of revelations. Law, whose great strength is writing lovingly but honestly about family, makes good use of these conventions and patterns to bring this portrait of a family to life.
There are some first-play hiccups – the building conflict sputters and starts, the layering of revelation and information is in need of a fine-tune – but the problems are relatively minor and easily fixable, especially after a first run of a play, when the work comes alive against audiences.
But there’s much here to like. And something stayed with me: late in the play, when most of the secrets are out and we’ve come to know and love the family, the tone of Torch the Place shifts – or maybe, in the audience, we do the shifting. The mountain of belongings has moved and we can see everyone a little better now we have more space, and what emerges is a love letter to Mum.
Torch the Place is a gift of recognition, acknowledgement and love to her and to all the women like her – an outstretched hand to women whose hearts have been broken, who have suffered trauma and survived, who have weathered devastating isolation and grief but have, thank god, held on tight to life.