I squirmed in my seat. I was supposed to.

Shannon Ryan, Laurence Coy and Eliza Nicholls (left to right) in "The Removalists". Photo: Bob Seary/New Theatre.

Review: The Removalists by David Williamson, New Theatre, Newtown – Wednesday, 21 April, 2021. By editor-at-large Gary Nunn.

★★★ 

One of the wonderful things that makes theatre so crucial is that every play can invite us to peg relevance and timeliness to the washing line of story presented to us on stage. 

The press night for the revival of David Williamson’s 1971 play about corrupt coppers, injustice and abuse of power coincided almost eerily with one of the most significant global events this year: a jury unanimously found guilty the police officer who murdered George Floyd, which kickstarted juggernaut Black Lives Matters protests worldwide. 

Meanwhile in London, a police officer faces trial for kidnapping and killing Sarah Everand as she walked home, leading to a vigil where male police were accused of heavy-handedness against women.

The play opens with two police officers indulging idle chatter: the experienced (and extremely corrupt) Simmonds and the new recruit, Ross in a sleepy local station.

Simmonds from the outset characterises every bad police stereotype: nosy yet lazy, authoritative yet pig-headed, sexist and predatory, and as bent as a roundabout. He hires sex workers to bribe criminals, uses unecessary force and violence on offenders and sleazes over women reporting crime.

Ross, meanwhile, is fresh out of training and keen to learn on the job. Unfortunately, Simmonds is his mentor.

When Fiona and her sister, Kate report an incident of domestic violence, Simmonds is uncomfortably tactile with the victim and creepy around her sister. 

The women accept this behaviour as if it’s something they’ve become, depressingly, accustomed to if they’re to get what they want: help with removing Eliza from the household of her abusive husband, Kenny. 

The police hire a removalist – played with witty flair by Xavier Coy – to transport Eliza’s furniture and belongings from the house when Kenny is supposed to be out. As they leave, deluded chauvanist Simmonds indicates that him and Ross will seduce and have sex with the women and believes they’ll comply as a token of gratitude. 

Alfie Gledhill, Xavier Coy and Laurence Coy in The Removalists. Photo: Bob Seary/New Theatre.

But Kenny is home when they arrive. Farce ensues as Ross haphazardly handcuffs the foul-mouthed Kenny and Simmonds beats him up “without leaving bruises – I’m an expert at that”.

A series of insults fly from Kenny until Ross loses his temper and does something he immediately regrets – a scene so shocking, I had to look away. 

He then turns on Simmonds, threatening him with the same corruption and abuse of power that the senior officer has made a career from. 

When it comes to men abusing their power to demean and harass women, Simmonds – a character written in the early 1970s – feels like an ugly reminder of how little has changed.

He’s played by Laurence Coy with an unrelenting, loud and brutal edge. Ross, his juxtaposition, is played by Lloyd Allison-Young with appropriate hesitance until that scene when his explosive temper is almost too real to bear.

Eliza Nicholls and Shannon Ryan – who play the sisters – do their best with a script that leaves little room for anything other than subordination and weary fate-acceptance.  

Alfie Gledhill’s Kenny is played to perfection: he’s detestable, flawed, immature and occasionally witty, and the actor plays the difficult part of domestic violence perpetrator with a wise nuance so the monster myth isn’t perpetuated; domestic violence abusers aren’t outliers and rare monsters; they’re everyday men abusing their patriarchal privilege and deceiving the outside world about their abusiveness.

Some lacking flow in this piece directed by Johann Walraven will inevitably find its place as the show’s run progresses. It’s the perfect length, told with momentum in one act of escalating violence. 

The uncomfortable satire on a subject as dark as this was elevated in this production till I squirmed in my seat – which was, I think, the point. When the humour was signposted, I wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. It’s all a bit too real at the moment. 

The script is based on a true story, told to Williamson by a removalist and injected with humour to critique toxic masculinity. 

The day after the performance, the white NSW Police Minister, David Elliott, said: “We don’t have a race problem here in Australia” and called for teachers to be sacked for “allowing” students to create Black Lives Matters themed posters.

Corrupt police officer Simmonds (Laurence Coy) gets violent against Kenny (Alfie Gledhill) in The Removalists. Photo: Bob Seary/New Theatre.

It left a sour taste after watching a show where out-of-touch, white, vainglorious police officers showed zero respect for those below them in the social hierarchy, and abused their arrogant privilege to demonstrate they have no understanding of the systemic discrimination that leads to oppression.

There’s timely, then there’s uncomfortably – yet essentially – too real. This was both. 

The Removalists by David Williamson plays the New Theatre, 542 King Street, Newtown, until Saturday, 22 May, 2021. For tickets ($20–$35) and further info, visit https://newtheatre.org.au/the-removalists.

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.