Falling Petals

BATS Theatre, Wellington

05/07/2007 - 21/07/2007

Production Details

Written by Ben Ellis
Directed by Jean Betts


Scary, surreal make believe; satire and science fiction – Donnie Darko meets Lord of the Flies

Something strange is happening in the isolated country town of Hollow – the children are dying. Ambitious teenagers Phil, Tania and Sally are desperate to leave their small town isolation but as the Authorities get nervous they threaten to block the only way out. Powerful forces are at work as alliances between the teens shift and the choices between life and death become increasingly fantastical and apocalyptic.

Part science-fiction, part satire, Falling Petals is a darkly humorous fable about the consequences of a culture of disposable youth.

Winner of the Wal Cherry Play of the Year Award, and the ANPC Young Dramatist Award, this caustic and deeply contemporary play shows brilliant young Melbourne writer Ben Ellis at his most sharp and observant.

“A savage but extremely inspiring story that’s unapologetically rough and grimy and relishes in its anti PC stance,” says director Jean Betts. Falling Petals reinvents the stereotype of teen escaping the small town upbringing and brilliantly addresses the question of who has responsibility for our children?”

Ben Ellis fell into writing plays after joining an amateur theatre group while he was at university. Soon learning he was not much of an actor, he turned his focus to his emerging knack for script writing. He went on to win numerous playwriting awards such as the Malcolm Robertson Award and the Patrick White Playwrights’ Award and he also writes regularly for The Big Issue Australia.

Extraordinarily well written, Falling Petals is a gritty, moving, and darkly entertaining piece of theatre.

‘Assaulting, confronting, surreal – Ben Ellis’s writing is a mix of humour, anger and insight… The new Brutalism comes to Australia… a vivid shock to the nervous system of contemporary theatre.’ Wal Cherry Judges’ comments

Phil . . . . . . .Eli Kent
Sally . . . . . . Rachel Forman
Tania . . . . . Abby Marment
Women . . . Heather O'Carroll
Men . . . . . . Phil Peleton

Set by Joe Bleakley
Lighting by Jen Lal
Sound by Paddy Bleakley

DRAMATURG: Michael Daly

Theatre ,

1 hr 30 mins, no interval

Initial premise is not realistic or believable

Review by Melody Nixon 27th Jul 2007

Falling Petals, now in its final week at BATS, has an aspect of Heiner Müller about it. Relentless brutalism is overlaid with a kind of narcissistic sadism, shocking for being dirty, and dirty for being shocking, but with an impenetrable veneer of hysteria that is impenetrable for a good reason. At times what lies beneath rings as hollow as the town it is based upon.

Falling Petals has been taken up to varying degrees in Australia, offered awards at one extreme and criticised for failing ‘to work’ at the other. The current BATS production does not convey a level of complexity, intellectuality or “realness” that makes the play worthwhile; though this seems in large part to do with a script that does not allow subtlety, genuine characterisation and emotional impact.

The continuously frenetic, over exaggerated and ghoulishly macabre characters create an assault on the senses that becomes alienating to the point of distraction. There seems to be little room for directors to soften this assault, though more could be done to increase emotive variation. Far from needing to be distanced from the drama, we long to be encouraged to connect with the emotion of the humanity involved. Brecht this is not; the best themes in the world mean nothing if we don’t care about them.

To be clear, Falling Petals’ themes are interesting and hold much potential. The idea that the disease which strikes the town of Hollow is borne out of small town pathos and narrow mindedness is brilliant – a sort of literalising of the decay of society, caused by materialism and individualism. Brilliant too in part is the character of young Phil, an embodiment of the destructiveness of those negative effects associated with capitalism. Phil is a nihilist in terms, believing in the destruction of his peers, of some authority, and of everything that isn’t conducive to his personal success. A model Wolfowitz Youth, he studies economics more and more fervently as the play progresses, shouting out neo-liberal catch phrases and Adam Smith quotes with increasing desperation. Where capitalism is traditionally touted as ‘progress,’ ‘expansion’ and ‘advancement’, the character of Phil offers a point of challenge.

Interestingly the play – or at least Dramaturge Michael Daly – asserts that it is the stripping away of choice which results in the “frailty and… ugliness of humanity” we witness in Falling Petals. The three Hollow town teenagers become increasingly destructive and ‘animalistic’ as their options are lessened; the taking away of choice is akin to imprisonment. This assertion of individual choice equalling good, cohesive society seems at odds with the overall premise of the play however, which seeks to show the evils of capitalism and the selfishness inherent in individualism. Rather it seems to be buying into the new right idealisation of individual choice; or at least it strikes as a contradiction.

Some of the play’s images – the staunch security guard who eyes up Tania’s mouth for use as a ‘cum bucket’, for example – are reminiscent of scenes that are currently occurring worldwide, in Sudan, in Afghanistan, and are certainly relevant because they are so possible. However the probing into the whys of those images, and a multi-dimensional examination of human nature, is not dealt with in depth. The script does not throw open the possibility for varied readings and speculation, nor does it provide a cohesive argument which can be used to bounce ideas off.

Whereas Australian PR tagged the play as “X-Files meets Lord of the Flies”, NZ publicists turned to “Donnie Darko”. This perhaps exemplifies much of the vagueness surrounding the play – and around its reception – and an over reliance on its general ‘weirdness’ to get it through. It is not strictly surrealist – what is presented is a projection of the real, of what society and humans have the capacity to cause – yet the initial premise is not realistic or believable. This means its themes are caught somewhere between its aesthetic and its half-way naturalism.

It is a pity those themes were not conveyed to us in convincing or stimulating ways, as they, and their associated images, could have had the potential to create interesting and challenging thought and creativity.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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In search of an ending

Review by Lynn Freeman 18th Jul 2007

Parents are supposed to love their children no matter what.  Right? But what if children become a liability, a diseased and out of control blight on the landscape.  You can’t escape the nightmare until they die of whatever it is that’s infected them. What then? Would self-preservation overrule parental responsibility?

The scenario of Falling Petals by Australian writer Ben Ellis, is described as "Donnie Darko meets Lord of the Flies" and that’s pretty much spot on.  The toddlers of the sleepy Australian hollow of Hollow start dying of a mysterious syndrome.  Three local teenagers respond by laughing about it.  They feel indestructible, as you do at that age.  Two are determined to leave the town by blitzing their exams, the third is trapped there because of her mother’s poverty and apathy. 

But when the disease starts clawing up through the ages to the teens, they flip out.  The already over-excitable Tania (Abby Marment) uses sex as a tool to get the information she believes she needs to succeed in the upcoming exams.  Phil (Eli Kent), already resentful that his school didn’t realise his academic potential, is prepared to go to any lengths to escape the barricade put around the small and nasty hick town.  These two firmly believe that they must make their own luck. 

Poor Sally (Rachel Forman), thrown out of home by her mother when things get tough, is taunted and kicked by her former two good friends as she lives rough and goes utterly insane. The adult characters, played by Heather O’Carroll and Phil Peleton, become increasingly grotesque as the grown ups turn on the children.

Jean Betts directs the piece with verve and her cast serve her well and energetically.  The play itself could work better as a film or a novel, where the adult characters could be fleshed out and less one-dimensional – this is a real weakness, even accepting this is the young people’s story.

Ben Ellis calls his openly political and satirical play "a warning not a manifesto for a New Zealand audience", a reminder to look to our disenfranchised post-Rogernomics population.  It certainly provides food for thought but is still a play in search of an ending and if the three teens weren’t quite so ghastly from the start we might have more sympathy for them. 


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Something’s rotten in the town of Hollow

Review by Eleanor Bishop 18th Jul 2007

Our story begins with the funeral of a seven-year-old boy who has died from a mysterious illness, in the small Australian town of Hollow. But teenagers Phil, Sally and Tania don’t care, showing a callous disregard for their fellow townspeople. Phil (Eli Kent) and Tania (Abby Marment) are focused on getting the best marks in their exams, as University entrance and degrees in law and economics are their tickets to the good life in Melbourne. It’s Hollow they hate, and as Phil states their sole purpose here is to "get the marks and get out".

The "nasty little town" that Phil describes in the first scene slowly begins to materialise, as more children start dying from the mysterious disease. As the disease spreads to the teenagers, paranoia and hysteria escalate. Phil argues that the kids die because they have no ambition to live, revealing his deep prejudice against "underachievers".

As the town strives to protect its businesses and the tourist trade from contamination, the children are rejected by their parents, and Sally (Rachel Forman) is left to roam the streets and search for food. When Hollow becomes quarantined, Phil and Tania make a desperate escape attempt to try to sit their exams, spurred on with support from their "Mind power series" audio tapes, telling them "everything happens for a reason".

It’s an allegorical piece, and Ben Ellis’ political bent is quite clear – he critiques the capitalism taking over everything which values nothing unless a price can be placed on it. The place you come from has no value, big city and big money are the new goals for the young, and there’s nothing sacred in studying something because it’s interesting. This focus on individual achievement at the cost of others, including the lives of your friends, is dramatised by the actions of both the adults and the children of Hollow.

However, the play provides no easy answers in offering an alternative. Although Sally will not leave Hollow for the Melbourne lifestyle, it is because her mother criticises her potential, as do the careers counsellors to Phil and Tania.

The evocative set (by Joe Bleakley) consists of a wooden tree made out of components from doors, which represents the apple tree where the gang hang out. The petals of the title fall down, and become strewn on the stage. The sound design (Paddy Bleakley) and lighting (Jen Lal) are also impressive, emphasising the strange nature of the events taking place.

Phil Peleton and Heather O’Carroll play all the other roles in the production, from parents, to teachers, to doctors. They both bring a sense of realism and character to each new role, avoiding the trap of falling into stereotyped caricature. Strong direction and excellent acting from the cast ensures the slow descent into madness is compelling and believable.

Another stunner from The Collective, a company whom we have come to expect great things from, this is tight, gripping theatre with direct political relevance. See it.


economist July 20th, 2007

yeah great show and good review. described the story i'd seen unlike captimes, as usual

TL July 19th, 2007

I agree. Am going again (last night this Saturday)

t opiate July 19th, 2007

This is the best review of 'Falling Petals', for my money.

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Less hysteria may involve us more

Review by Helen Sims 13th Jul 2007

Falling Petals is the second play this year by an Australian playwright dealing with Australian social issues, some of which strike a chord across the ditch. In contrast to Two Brothers that played earlier this year at Circa, this play has a more universal pre-occupation. It is set in the remote country town of ‘Hollow’ (plays on the name of the town and its ‘Hollow’ inhabitants are exploited throughout), in which a mystery illness, termed the ‘syndrome’ is wiping out the young inhabitants by apparently causing their organs to stop working together. As the syndrome spreads and progresses from primary school aged children to teens, all the young of Hollow are shunned by the adults of the town. The play examines the process of becoming an outcast and the resultant loss of choices and identity, and the victimisation of outcasts by figures of authority. It also deals with excess individualism, and the sense that problems are ‘out there’, happening to someone else.

The plot revolves around the experiences of three of Hollow’s teens (hollow teens), Phil (Eli Kent), Tania (Abby Marment) and Sally (Rachel Forman). Phil and Tania are planning to get out of Hollow as soon as possible, and see their University Entrance exams as their meal ticket to get to Melbourne. Their biggest concerns are studying and grappling with an ineffectual guidance counselor (Phil Peleton, in one of his many small roles as a variety of Hollow townsmen). At the opening of the play they are mocking excess emotion and falsity they feel have characterised the funerals of the initial young victims of the syndrome. Sally is planning to remain in Hollow after high school (a hollow existence), staying behind to help her mother in the shop, as she has determined, along with her mother (Heather O’Carroll, playing various Hollow townswomen) that uni is too expensive for her. Sally is more concerned by the mysterious deaths than her friends and is freaked out by the falling petals of the tree under which they gather, as they seem to eerily coincide with another death. Being most integrated into the Hollow lifestyle, Sally is the first to succumb to the illness, with the result that she is kicked out of home by her mother and rejected by her friends. Her treatment and behaviour as a sick outcast has immediate echoes of the alienation of rural Aborigines, seen as unhealthy and degenerate by the Australian government.

After the schools are closed Phil and Tania become increasingly frantic in their study efforts. Phil is the brighter of the two, and Tania has sex with him, seemingly in order to consume as much knowledge from him as possible. As one of the adult authority figures notes, they become victims of extreme over-stimulation. Most of the second half of the play is taken up with their frenzied efforts to escape the now cordoned off Hollow to the neighbouring town of Sandcastle in order to sit their exams, and occasional violent meetings with Sally. They become obsessed with getting ahead and getting out, reflected in their increasingly self-centered behaviour – Ben Ellis’s point in his writer’s note pointing to reflection on the results on New Zealand’s neo-liberal experiments in the 1980s seems quite apt for their behaviour – individualism is set at a premium.

Although the performances of the three main actors were energetic and committed from the beginning, I found they lacked subtlety at crucial moments and were quite self-indulgent (a scene in which one of them masturbates seemed rather ironically appropriate). Perhaps firmer direction and restraint of the three recently graduated actors who played the main roles was required to give their performances greater depth beyond frantic urgency bordering on madness and frequent shouting. My theatre-going companion said she thought the play was ruined by over-acting, and although I wouldn’t go so far as to say the play was robbed of its moments of poetry and strong social warning, it did tend to diminish the effect. The play also felt entirely too episodic – I felt that the messages of the play could probably have been conveyed more powerfully by restricting the action to the microcosm of the three teens’ special place under the tree, and their eventual loss of that place as sanctuary, rather than playing out scenes in various parts of the town. This is in no way to detract from the performances of Peleton and O’Carroll, who bring much needed moments of lightness and understatement – it just seemed like these scenes were unnecessary interruptions of the narrative. The script is also a little too heavy on figurative imagery for my liking, some of which I thought was a tad clumsy, but this may just be a personal preference. The promotional tagline is “Donnie Darko meets Lord of the Flies”, and while the latter reference resonates throughout the play, it is not as clever or sophisticatedly post-modern as Donnie Darko, although it definitely is as dark. I suppose that the unravelling of the narrative is intended to reflect the unravelling of the social fabric that binds the town (exposing it as truly hollow), but I felt that due to the lack of precision in both script and this production it missed the mark in conveying this message to its full extent.

Technical elements of the production were sparse but used to great effect. I was particularly impressed by the main piece of set – a large tree constructed of pieces of official looking doors, some with handles still attached (designed by Joe Bleakley). Music and lighting (by Paddy Bleakley and Jen Lal respectively) was effective and suitably discordant in places. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how the petals managed to fall from one of the beams at perfectly timed moments.

I don’t think the audience is ever really invited to consider how we would cope with the same situation enough to feel involved (or indicted) – there is simply too much hysteria going on for us to digest. An interesting play, with an eager cast, this just could have used a bit more control and a bit less indulgence to be a truly moving and thought-provoking production.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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Cast keep cruel what-if on the level

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 09th Jul 2007

When Sars and Bird Flu came to prominence a few years back the question asked by many was, what happens to society if this gets out of hand and whole communities become wiped out? Tough Falling Petals is not based on these incidents, author Ben Ellis nevertheless canvases the same issues.

The setting is the small Australian town of Hollow in the state of Victoria where a mysterious illness is wiping out the young children.  While concern mounts among the adults as more and more children begin to die, three high school kids Phil (Eli Kent) Sally (Rachel Forman) and Tania (Abby Marment) have far more pressing issues to deal with, mainly getting good grades so they can escape to university. 

This becomes increasingly difficult as the town becomes quarantined and self preservation becomes paramount.  Parents abandon their children and Sally ends up sleeping rough in the bush, while the kids revert to base animal instincts to survive, all the while cramming themselves with economic theory for the day when they become adults (sex also becomes a major part of their survival game). 

Brutal and in-your-face and at times shocking, the play combines reality with science fiction and psychological thriller, as well as a satirical take on the policies of the Howard government. 

It does stretches credibility to the extreme, however, with the ending seeming silly and pretentious. It is only Jean Betts’ expert direction and the powerful performances of the cast, especially those playing the three adolescents, that stops the play sinking into a mire of self gratification. 

Kent, Forman and Marment pull out all the stops in racy, energised portrayals of the three school kids, so much so that at the beginning they speak so loud and fast that it’s hard to understand what they are initially on about.  But once they settle down and get into their stride they make each of their characters real and as believable as possible with such a script. The raw brutality they bring to the final scenes makes for very compelling theatre. 

Phil Peleton and Heather O’Connell play the various briefly sketched adults with authority making this an excellent production of a less than perfect play. Though not to everyone’s liking, it is nevertheless still worth seeing.


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Shock is the weapon of choice

Review by John Smythe 07th Jul 2007

In stark contrast to the rich humanity, celebratory theatricality and subtle political strategies employed by Strange Resting Places (the 6.30 show at BATS), Falling Petals (at 8.30) delivers its harsh political satire via the ‘New Brutalism’, its ‘in yer face’ confrontation alleviated somewhat by an allegorical approach.

"It’s a warning, not a manifesto," writes its multi award-winning Australian playwright Ben Ellis in his programme note. His ‘what if’ premise is this: given our human instincts compel us to nurture our children through their vulnerable years as they grow towards adulthood and independence, what if they – the children – were suddenly afflicted with a nameless and inexplicable condition that relegated them to alien status, to be feared, rejected and offered no hope?

In Hollow, a small Victorian town (in contemporary Australia), primary school children are dying and no-one knows why. But does this provoke compassion, concern or even sentimental sadness in a trio of high school students? No. Beneath the apple tree that is their habitual haunt, Phil (Eli Kent), Tania (Abby Marment) and Sally (Rachel Forman) react with send-up hilarity at the maudlin rituals played out at the funerals.

Phil and Tania are obsessed with the need to pass their University Entrance exams in order to exchange their Hollow existence for the promise of a more vital life in Melbourne, where university will liberate them into high flying jobs. Phil sees Economics as their ticket to freedom and is fixated on becoming a corporate lawyer. Tania follows his lead because she fancies him but he, at first, relates more to Sally.

The mantras of personal growth (problem = challenge = opportunity) keep Phil and Tania focused and Tania, increasingly strident in her ambition, uses sex as a means of transmitting his knowledge into herself. Economic theory is the turn-on.

Meanwhile, because Sally sees value in the simple Hollow lifestyle, she is the first older child – and the only one of the gang of three – to succumb to the disease. Evicted by her mother, who runs a dress-making business from home and doesn’t want to lose her customers, she takes her blanket to the tree and, in direct response to the way she is treated and her deteriorating health, develops behaviours redolent of Aboriginals in a similar predicament.

Prevailing Australian attitudes to refugees also resonate as the adults – a doctor, teachers and parents, all played by Heather O’Carroll and Phil Peleton – take a variety of evasive actions to protect their own interests. The play that has begun sick just gets sicker and sicker …

But ambitious Phil remains immune because he subscribes to the value systems of now and the future. Except because he comes from Hollow he is tarred with the same brush. Even so, when Hollow becomes quarantined and check points become impassable – although a gross security guard is happy to add Tania to his store on "cum buckets" till she passes her use by date – Phil cannot be stopped. And hey, if a long-distance sewer pipe is his only way out and into the promised land of opportunity, so be it.

Opportunities for empathy as a way of engaging with the work are not within the purview of the New Brutalism. Shock, at the recognition of uncomfortable home truths, is the weapon of choice, and – like Hannie Rayson’s Two Bothers, railing against Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers – its dramatic impact is proportional to the degree of culpability felt by the audience. Hence the New Zealand perspective is more one of, "There but for the grace …," etc.

Under Jean Betts’ strong direction, the unalloyed commitment of Eli Kent, Rachel Foreman and Abbey Marment to their roles, abetted by Heather O’Carroll and Phil Peleton in the broader-drawn roles, the production is compelling. Despite the extraordinary stretch of the imagination the writer explores, they demand we believe it.

Joe Bleakley’s set is dominated by a massive tree trunk jig-sawed from institutional wooden doors, some still with knobs on, and the increasing decadence of the unfolding tale is gently offset by white petals that flutter to earth on cue (kudos to operator Debbie McGuire). Jen Lal’s lighting and Paddy Bleakley’s sound designs both illuminate and disrupt the action to excellent effect.

This play and its writer evolved through the now defunct Playbox theatre in Melbourne, when it was devoted entirely to developing new Australian work and maintaining the homegrown repertoire. Such initiatives, and the core commitment of recurrently funded Australian theatres to homegrown work, allows writers to respond to what’s happening in their immediate world in the reasonable hope that their work will be produced within the same political context.

Would that New Zealand theatre was in the same position.


TL July 13th, 2007

I thought it was amazing, also in a horrible way very funny, tho my brains a bit bruised afterwards.

The Hollow Man July 13th, 2007

Interesting. It appears that this is actually a very difficult show to review. I've found all three reviews have been kind of underwhelming, as if they've all missed something essential to the understanding or enjoyment of 'Falling Petals'. I really enjoyed the show, and must say it has a lot more going for it than one would expect from what's been said about it here, in the Dom and on Lumiere. I advise anyone sitting on the fence to take a punt on this show.

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