Surprise Party with Jem and Dead Max: Play Review

By Mihika Hegde
Cover image by Connor Tomas O’Brien

Growing up is weird. It’s a time that’s wrought with change, far beyond what most of us could have predicted. It can be mundane, difficult, and electric, and most of us don’t get a guidebook on how to navigate it all.

Mainstream media and popular culture have developed what looks like an expansive data base of the ‘coming-of-age’ experience. But underneath the veneer of two-dimensional relationships, formulaic narrative arcs, and storybook endings there’s a heap of reality doesn’t quite make the final cut- which is why Georgia Symons’ Surprise Party was a breath of fresh air.

Surprise Party tells a pretty contained story of friends, Jem (Anna Kennedy) and Dead Max (Christian Taylor) who are introduced at, you guessed it, a surprise party for Max’s birthday. Your detective work would also be on the right track if you guessed that Max was dead. To the audience and to Jem, he’s a figment of who he used to be- alive and recognisable.

As an audience, we see the story in multiple divided parts, all canvassing different formative experiences Jem and Dead Max share throughout their childhoods. The use of lighting and sound to oscillate between different moments in time is both savvy and seamless-something you’d expect from work with a much higher production value.

The pair are relatable, but not inauthentic. There’s a resoundingly familiar quality to the friendship we see develop- it’s young and juvenile but also easy and uncomplicated. So when the story takes a darker turn, there’s an even greater resonance to the play. It asks you to think about the things you were told to expect, the experiences you were told to avoid, and the conversations that should have been better.

Surprise Party explores sex and consent, telling an intimate story while maintaining a sensitivity for its subject matter. It’s a play that’s all too familiar, particularly for young women, yet one that’s rarely told.

It’s uncomfortable to watch at times, but that’s something that makes it all the more important to see. “I wish I could write an angrier play,” Symons said.

“I hope I do one day. But this play is about all those times when we should be angry, we have every right to be angry, and yet we can’t be. What do we do then?”.

Symons makes sure that the story isn’t over-simplified and so what we see, is a mosaic of experiences about what happens in the blurry haze between adolescence and adulthood.

Surprise Party is a story that develops gradually and eventuates to grow beyond the confines of the play. It’s subtle yet jarring, intricate yet direct- viewing that stays with you for some time after.

Surprise Party is playing at La Mama Theatre until the 27th of August. Click here for more info.

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