Review: Driftwood The Musical

Playing at Chapel Off Chapel, Melbourne until May 20.
Glen Street Theatre, Sydney from May 24-28.
Riverside Parramatta, Sydney from 31 May-4 June
The Eternity Playhouse, Sydney from June 7-18.

Tickets and more info can be found at:

An extraordinary musical with emotion, heart and compassion to spare, Driftwood is the absorbing true story of Jewish couple Karl and Slawa Duldig (played wonderfully by Anton Berezin and Tania de Jong), a Polish couple who are living happily and prosperously in 1930s Vienna, who, fearing the oncoming spectre of the Nazis in Europe as the decade draws on, decide to flee the country to escape persecution, eventually finding themselves in Melbourne in the 1940s.

Driftwood is based on the memoir by Eva de Jong-Duldig, which in turn was adapted into a play by Jane Bodie, and this original musical features a beautiful score by composer Anthony Barnhill, accompanied by an excellent book by Bodie and Gary Abrahams.

We see the story first unfold through the eyes of an 18-year-old Eva (Bridget Costello), who, sometime in the 1950s, begins to become curious about her parent’s past and the reasons why they left what seemed to be a happy life in Vienna. It’s through Eva’s digging through photo albums and scrapbooks that we venture into the past of Karl and Slawa, learning that Karl was a successful artist and tennis player, and Slawa invented the world’s first-ever foldable umbrella.

But Karl rightly senses the danger Jewish citizens will be in as the Nazis rise to power, and decides he and Slawa must flee in order to be safe, which means leaving friends and family behind. The story’s framing device of having Eva learning about the past as these moments in time play out by the cast before our eyes is one that never fails to engage, and right from the start we’re invested in Eva’s story as she learns more about the circumstances that led her mum and dad to Australia.

Karl and Slawa’s time in Australia begins with hardship, spending many years in an internment camp in regional Victoria before being allowed to begin their new life in this country. The fact that there were internment camps in Victoria during World War II and that Jewish immigrants were sent here was a truly shocking and sad revelation I had no knowledge of beforehand, and credit to this show for shining a light on what is a regrettable chapter of our history.

In addition to the main performers, the supporting cast also shines. Michaela Burger is wonderful as Rella, Slawa’s sister who decides to stay behind in Europe, with the sisters only communication through letters sent in the mail for many years. Burger’s vocal range is extraordinary and she brings humour and boundless energy to her role, enlivening every scene she’s in with her stage presence. 

The final member of the cast is Nelson Gardner, who takes on a variety of roles and does an excellent job of bringing subtle differences to the range of characters he plays. 

Watching Driftwood, I was reminded at times of the musical Fun Home, which shares a similar structure of a woman looking back over her family’s past and trying to make sense of key (and often traumatic) moments in their familial history, as the events play out in front of them. It’s an incredibly effective structure for dramatic storytelling and it works wonderfully here.

This is a one-set musical but the use of space and the way it is transformed in subtle ways to suggest shift in locations is beautifully done, and the ever-present video screen hovering above the actors is a simple yet effective way of illustrating locations on a map as well as real-life historical photos taken by the Duldigs over the years. One of the best moments is when we see a profoundly moving reunion take place on stage, with one of the characters taking a photo of the moment, and then we see the real-life picture displayed on the screen above. It’s a brief scene but is an example of the merging of the past and present, of stage play and real life mementos, that this production does so well.

Not enough superlatives exist to extend to the cast. Berezin is warm and instantly loveable as the kind and caring Karl, while de Jong (playing her real-life grandmother) sings beautifully and also excellently conveys the sadness and pain of being separated from her homeland and family. Costello is every bit their equal in a difficult role that sees her play Eva from a teenager to a thirty-something adult, and she is utterly convincing every step of the way.

Costello also gets most of the show’s show-stopping numbers, taking centre stage at many key moments to wow the audience with her astounding vocals. Coming on the heels of her amazing work as Christine Daaé in the recent Arts Centre production of The Phantom of the Opera, Costello has no doubt now herself as a true star of the local stage scene. 

The score, performed by a three-person team, always feels much larger and more elaborate than the small group of musicians would suggest, and composer Barnhill beautifully weaves in many traditional Hebrew pieces of music throughout which only adds to the rich tapestry of music featured in Driftwood.

If I had one minor criticism, it would be that some of the character’s accents come and go at times, which is a little bit jarring, but that is the only fault I could find. As a descendant of Polish immigrants myself, who came to Australia post World War II, I connected on a personal level to this tale of the unshakeable bond of family during a time of war. But I feel the musical’s themes are universal and everyone can relate to the Duldig’s story on some level. 

Driftwood is a difficult show to watch at times, as it deals with some of the more harrowing aspects of wartime Europe, but the ultimate feeling viewers are left with afterwards is one of hope, happiness and a renewal in faith of the human spirit.

Images: Supplied/James Terry

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