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Diving for Pearls is a heartbreaking tale of trying to transcend but ultimately failing due to forces wildly out of individual control. Ursula Yovich leads as Barbara, a feisty middle-aged woman attempting to rise above her working-class status. Brash and unwilling to yield from her dream of being a hotel hostess, Barbara aggressively navigates her complex personal relationships against the backdrop of a manufacturing town morphing into tourism central. Fundamental to this is her relationship with Den (Steve Rodgers), a softly spoken and unassuming labourer who is pushed to his emotional limits during the play’s tragic climax.

Indeed, the moments of humour in the interactions between Barbara and her sister Marj (Michelle Doake) peppering the first act are quickly forgotten after the uncompromising and unflinching drama that unfolds as the play nears its conclusion. Jack Finsterer as Den’s brother-in-law is especially compelling as a man caught in an intense moral struggle while newcomer, Ebony Vargulans shines sweetly as Verge, Barbara’s daughter living with cerebral palsy.

With so many ‘locations’ packed into one play, Sydney’s notoriously intimate Griffin Theatre seems an odd choice but James Brown’s spectacular hand-cranked staging and clever use of traditionally off-stage areas is dazzling for its use of space. Max Lambert and Roger Lock’s sound design is subtle but paired with the brilliance of Benjamin Brockman’s evocative lighting choices; Griffin Theatre becomes coastal NSW in the 1980s.

While set in the past, the simultaneous feelings of hope and anguish still resonate deeply with contemporary audiences. In a particularly analogous scene midway through the play, Den and his brother-in-law unsuccessfully attempt to fish in an area once rich with catch. Angrily grasping onto the results of the past, the characters of Diving for Pearls have not yet caught on that the times are a-changing – and for them, not for the better.

Until Oct 28. Griffin Theatre, 13 Craigend St, Darlinghurst. $35-$55+b.f. Tickets & Info: www.griffintheatre.com.au

Reviewed by Emily Shen.