Plonked down, somewhere in the middle of the South Australian desert, 500 kilometres from Adelaide, is a bank, theatre, bowling alley, radio station, hospital, pub, graveyard and a few hundred people.
This is the town of Woomera. It is owned and operated by the Australian Department of Defence, built in the 1940s to house defence contractors, missile engineers and rocket scientists, who were hired by the Anglo-Australian Project at the Woomera Rocket Range. And it only opened to the public after 1982.
What is it like to live in the shadow of rockets and nuclear tests, far from the cocoon of civilisation? In Rocket Town (directed by Daisy Brown), Welsh playwright Emily Steel explores the themes of isolation, abandonment and sacrifice through the eyes of Jess (Dee Easton) and Josh (Sam Calleja), two teenagers riding motorbikes and downing beers under the endless desert stars.
Their meeting is the play’s opening: Josh has just moved to Woomera, where his mother will work as a rocket scientist, and, in his naivety, is captivated by the night sky and the idea of being close to where science happens. Jess has just found out her family won’t be moving back to the city any time soon, and is getting drunk by herself.
“Can I give you a tip, Josh? We’re not going to be friends. That’s my tip. Don’t make any friends here. Because everyone leaves.”
It’s a story as much about growing up as it is about growing up in Woomera. The awkward fumbling and rampant sarcasm of the youthful protagonists are heartfelt and endearing where they might fall flat. And while the outbursts range into the melodramatic at times, what teenage heartbreak doesn’t?
“I could die of radiation,” Josh whines at one point, while getting drunk in the missile park in the middle of town. “Yes, but that would be science,” Jess says snarkily.
And what about the science? Rocket Town doesn’t miss the mark here either. Deftly woven into the hour-long play is the complex history of a town that rivals NASA’s Cape Canaveral in Florida for the highest quantity and rate of rocket launches in the world.
As Jess reflects on witnessing the 2010 landing of the Japanese Hayabusa space probe near Woomera, carrying dust from the Itokawa asteroid, she sighs “it doesn’t feel real, it feels like a story I’m going to tell.”
Rocket Town was co-presented by the Royal Institution of Australia (RiAus) as part of Adelaide Fringe 2011 and won the Adelaide Festival Centre inSPACE award. The play is being shown at the Bondi Pavillion in Sydney this week, and will travel to South Australia in August. For more information, visit: rockettown.info.