The Deadly Run
Writer: Liviu Monsted
The Crypt, St James Anglican Church
November 20-30, 2019
Sad, violent and true, The Deadly Run (Season 2: Deadhouse: Tales of Sydney Morgue) is an immersive theatre experience dramatising notorious cases which passed through the Sydney Morgue and Coroner’s Court in The Rocks. Situated in in the crypt under St James Anglican Church, the performance also offers an opportunity to connect with one of the oldest buildings in Sydney, originally intended as a courthouse, and constructed by convict labour between 1820 and 1824.
In 1959, Kevin Simmonds and Leslie Newcombe escaped from Long Bay Gaol through a ventilation duct in the roof of the prison chapel. Newcombe was captured within a fortnight but Simmonds kept the police at bay for 37 days, the longest manhunt in New South Wales history and deploying close to 500 policemen. His ability to elude authorities gained him public sympathy while many applauded, seeing his struggle as a heroic bid for personal freedom.
Script writer Liviu Monsted takes his audience into the heart of the conflict between freedom and authority immediately by opening the play with a debate between free thinking Grace (Wendi Lanham) and her conservative friend Fran (Joanna Eve). There is no question on which side the loyalty of the writer lies, as Grace Eyre, distributing her pro-Simmo posters, is vibrant and idealistic and her disapproving mousey friend, timid and very beige. When a policeman (a threatening Steve Donelan) appears the friend vanishes, and Grace is escorted home and her parents informed of her wrongdoing. Their reaction underlies the divisive response to the manhunt as Mrs Eyre (Mary-Anne Halpin) indirectly supports Grace against the patriarch Eyre’s (Gregory Wilken) disapproving sarcasm.
Notably Grace and her mother are impressed by Simmond’s good looks – compare the female reaction to serial killer Ted Bundy – but their response is also a form of resistance against the suppressive regime in which a self-congratulatory and narrow man is head of the household. Indirect support is also expressed by the nursing sister (Halpin), who although attacked by the two escapees who need her car, is still able to observe their desperation with compassion.
Liviu does not downplay the men’s brutality. They are shown beating to death the warden who discovered them breaking into Emu Plains Prison Farm two days after their escape in search of supplies. Neither attempts to defend their action, but in recalling it, describe it as if they are taken over by a blind instinct to smash and destroy. We might interpret this as an expression of their deep frustration at their present almost hopeless situation, or anger at a system that had imprisoned them intermittently from an early age.
Newcombe (Jordon Gallegos), the younger of the two men, is sensitively portrayed. After his recapture and resentencing, he denies that he was influenced by the charismatic Simmonds, saying that he chose willingly to join in Simmond’s plan to escape. In lyrical and moving terms, he describes hearing Simmonds singing in the dark night of the prison, and we feel how deeply he was drawn to the freedom affirming spirit of the man. Chris Miller gives a thrilling performance as the larger-than-life Simmonds whether as the escaping convict or the man broken by the cruel regime of the Grafton prison.
Gallegos and Miller are well supported by Kyla Ward as Detective Merchant and as narrator who guides the audience expertly through the story as it moves from location to location within the crypt. The role of the brutal and brutalising Detective Sergeant Kelly ( a chilling Wilken) and that of the sadistic Grafton warder (Christopher Daw) give frightening insight into police corruption and irascible Judge (a suitably arrogant Donellan) who overrides the verdict of the jury demonstrates the ingrained prejudice of the law itself.
Many themes, including the now youthful protests against governmental arrogance, are woven into Monsted’s short and intense story of two men, whose horrendous abuse within the prison system eventually contributed to its reform. Brought to vivid life by convincing and electric performances, and presented in a place redolent with history, The Deadly Run both saddens and inspires.