First Love is the Revolution is a wildly imaginative, eccentric, beguiling play about star-crossed teenage lovers – one of whom is a human, the other a fox. It sounds decidedly strange and yet somehow it works.
Written by London-based Australian playwright Rita Kalnejais (Babyteeth), the play premiered in London in 2015. In her program notes, Kalnejais says that she wrote it while she was experiencing “serious culture shock. I’d moved to London a year earlier and felt completely out of my depth writing in British-English. Though we were speaking the same words (more or less), the intention behind them, the rhythm, what filled the pauses, the reason for speaking in the first place, seemed to me to be completely different. English-English felt like a second language. If I’m honest, that’s why I wrote a play with talking animals…” she says.
It’s a wacky but wonderful idea that leads to a very funny, sweet rom-com providing plenty to ponder around life, death and a plethora of human emotions.
Bardiya McKinnon as Basti and Sarah Meacham as Rdeca. Photograph © Brett Boardman
Fourteen year old Basti is small, sad and frequently bullied at school. His mother has had a mental breakdown and is in an institution, and his father is a lackadaisical parent, who is hellbent on making him more macho. Missing his mother terribly, Basti decides that he will make her a fox stole to cheer her up and sets a trap in their garden.
Rdeca is the youngest of three cubs, being raised by their recently widowed mother Cochineal. It’s time for her to make her first kill under her mother’s eagle eye, but hunting is not something that comes naturally and Rdeca does a terrible job with a mole.
Nonetheless, Cochineal sends the three siblings out on their own at night for the first time, and Rdeca is caught in Basti’s trap. To their astonishment they find they can understand each other. Sparks start jumping as quickly as the fleas in Rdeca’s fur, and a decidedly unusual but touching relationship develops. Naturally both families are horrified when they discover what’s going on, and it’s pretty clear there will be tears before bedtime.
Lee Lewis directs a gorgeous production on a beautiful set by Ella Butler, featuring a grassy hillock with an armchair built into it, and a fence along the back, while Trent Suidgeest’s lovely lighting charts the passing of time. Butler’s costuming is also very clever, dressing the animals in human clothes but in ways that suit the species they are portraying. The party hats and puffer jackets for the chickens are particularly funny.
Lewis has gathered a fine cast. Sarah Meacham as Rdeca and Bardiya McKinnon as Basti capture the innocence and joyous abandon of the two young misfits, both longing for someone they can relate to, and the relationship between them feels very real.
Rebecca as Cochineal. Photograph © Brett Boardman
The other cast members each do an admirable job of moving between different characters – Matthew Whittet is equally convincing as a fatalistic, gentle mole called Gregor, Basti’s father and a ditzy chicken; Rebecca Massey give a fierce, heartfelt performance as Cochineal, and is terribly touching as a chook accepting destiny as she faces death; Amy Hack morphs between Rdeca’s sister Gustina, a slinky cat, a chook, and Basti’s warm-hearted bogan upstairs neighbour; while Guy Simon is terrifying as a ferocious dog guarding the chickens, as well as playing Rdeka’s protective brother Thoreau.
The ending of the play doesn’t entirely convince but it’s still a beautifully written, optimistic piece full of surprises, prompting plenty to think about in terms of families, our attitudes to other species, the food we eat, destiny and death, as well as love.
First Love is the Revolution runs at the SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney until December 14