‘I want it to be provocative’: A unique love story takes centre stage

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Picture this. Tim, 26, is a labourer with a mild intellectual disability and conspicuously good looks. Tim mows the lawn for Mary, 55, a mining executive who is single.

One day, Mary asks Tim away for the weekend. Where did your mind just race to?

Playwright Tim McGarry is hoping to challenge stereotypes with his new play.Credit: Dominic Lorrimer

Playwright Tim McGarry knows exactly where it went. But he hopes his new play will challenge salacious stereotypes and prove that true love sometimes comes in wildly unexpected packaging.

McGarry’s last stage hit was an adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel, Boy Swallows Universe, for Queensland Theatre. He also wrote There’s a Sea in My Bedroom for the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) and numerous plays for Monkey Baa Theatre for Young People, where he was a creative director and producer from 2005 to 2017.

As an actor and playwright of decades’ standing, McGarry brings a wealth of experience to Tim, the play he has adapted from the 1974 Colleen McCullough book of the same name.

“I’m hoping that the work will draw attention to the plight of people with disabilities,” McGarry says.

Sonia Wilson, Jack Richardson and Adrian Whitehall performed in Tim McGarry’s There’s a Sea in My Bedroom.Credit: Louise Kennerley

For this new play, which opens in Sydney this month, McGarry draws on three decades working as a casual disability support worker in various group homes in Sydney’s inner west.

He’s seen how people can fall through the cracks of government services, and how people with even mild disabilities can end up in unsuitable housing or on the street.

In the play, Tim could easily be just like that. It’s thanks to a very unconventional relationship – one that sparks the disdain of Tim’s sister – that the young man can look to the future with a sense of love and security.

“We’re living in an incredibly wealthy society,” says McGarry. “We can pour money into everything else, but when it comes to people who are the most disadvantaged, we seem to be able to continually neglect them.

“We say, ‘private enterprise will look after that’. Well, it doesn’t. The government can’t keep stepping away from social responsibility. And so I have a little bit of a bee in my bonnet about that. And, for me, this is partly what the work speaks about.”

Mary is aged in her early 40s in McCullough’s book. In the play, McGarry has aged her to 55. The greater age difference makes Mary’s relationship with Tim all the more socially provocative.

“And I want it to be provocative,” he says.

But more than social taboos, the big issue at the heart of Tim is the failure of the young man’s parents to properly consider what will happen to him when they die.

Author Colleen McCullough in the early 90s.Credit: Anthony Browell

“It’s not an easy story,” McGarry says. “It’s not an easy discussion when you have a sibling or a child with a disability.

“How do we set them up so their life is valued beyond the life of the parent? Because parents don’t want children with a disability to be a burden on their siblings, but at the same time they have to think about how they’re going to live. You have to have those discussions.”

In the play, Tim’s sister calls out their parents for their failure to plan for Tim’s future. It’s Mary, however, who becomes the solution.

A story like this risks becoming heavy and preachy, but McGarry is too clever a writer for that.

“[The script] is very, very funny, and chiefly it’s a beautiful love story,” McGarry says. “I hope it gives audiences a better sense of empathy towards relationships, no matter what the age difference is or whatever the differences are. When people fall in love, they fall in love. I think that’s the take-out of the piece.”

McGarry felt quite strongly that Tim should be played, if possible, by a young male actor with lived experience of disability. McGarry auditioned many impressive candidates but settled on Ben Goss, a recent graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts, who has a mild disability.

“Ben’s just a sensational actor and a beautiful human being, and he’s just absolutely right for the role of Tim,” McGarry says.

Mary will be played by well-known theatre, film and television actor Jeanette Cronin (Janet King).

Jeanette Cronin and Ben Goss take on the roles of Mary and Tim in Tim.Credit: Branco Gaica

“Mary is the character who changes most throughout the piece, from hard-nosed businesswoman to letting someone into her heart,” McGarry says. “[She and Tim] are both lonely characters who’ve come together.”

McGarry is especially excited about the play’s sound design, by Max Lambert.

“[It] will bring us into Tim’s world through sound,” McGarry says. “One of the aspects of Tim’s character is that he possibly has auditory processing disorder, and my feeling is that Tim hears the world in a different way than the rest of us do. He’s affected by noise and the sounds around him.”

McGarry’s next project is directing The Princess, the Pea (and the Brave Escapee) for the ACO in September, and creating a new work for Brisbane Festival next year. There is also interest in a national tour of Boy Swallows Universe.

“I’m certainly hopeful it’s going to see another life,” McGarry says.

Tim is at Glen Street Theatre, July 28 to 30; Civic Theatre, Newcastle, August 4; The Joan, August 11 to 12; Merrigong Theatre Company, Wollongong, August 16 to 19; and Riverside Theatres, August 30 to September 2.

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