Dirty Energy is the latest offering from independent theatre company Deus Ex Femina. Founder Katherine Sortini is the writer and star of the play, which makes its world premiere this Adelaide Fringe season. Together with director Annabel Matheson and a stellar cast, Sortini explores the culture of underlying toxicity that can fester in the hospitality industry, as well as just what makes its overworked and underpaid staff keep coming back despite it all.

The role Sortini has created for herself – Bast, a cynical, wisecracking sommelier, rarely without a drink or cigarette in hand – plays to her strengths. We’re hooked from the moment she strolls in, removes her dark shades, and begins the opening monologue.

If you weren’t already familiar with Sortini’s spoken-word background (she’s an Australian Poetry Slam grand finalist), you’d soon guess it from her pulsing rhythmic delivery, and the impression she gives of speaking with her whole body even when fixed in place. The combined effect is an intensity that’s hard to look away from.

We get strong performances from the other cast members, too. Michelle Lieu as competent restaurant manager Avi, Connor Pullinger as nervous newbie Clay, and Philippos Ziakas, the irritable Chef, make up the rest of the harried staff. Pullinger, in particular, is given plenty of comic material and makes the most of it – he can do a lot with just a facial expression. My only quibble: possibly due to the room’s acoustics, any lines delivered too quickly or softly didn’t carry well and were a strain to hear. In the end, though, a few bits of missed dialogue didn’t disrupt the enjoyment of the performance.

The narrative is compelling throughout the show’s 60 minutes. Characters we might have taken at first introduction to be stock figures are given depth and dimension as Dirty Energy progresses. Bast has her tough-talking bravado called out as cowardice, while gracious Avi reveals a steely resolve. Even naïve Clay proves his value, and with a few well-placed details is given an evocative backstory.

Dirty Energy will naturally resonate with anyone who has worked in the industry. It’s an honest and absorbing portrait that covers all the familiar grievances: rude customers, incompetent bosses, long hours, and low wages. It captures, too, the thrill, the electrifying pace, and the bonds that form in the trenches. Deus Ex Femina has served up another well-crafted piece of theatre.

Dirty Energy is playing at Carclew House until March 20.

Read InReview’s interview with Katherine Sortini here, and more 2024 Adelaide Fringe stories and reviews here.

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