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In Passenger, your everyday bus ride takes a dramatic turn


At one point during Passenger, a new production by Melbourne theatre-maker Jessica Wilson, a woman apologises to the man seated next to her on the bus for overhearing his conversation.


"It's that thing where when you're trying not to hear – you hear everything," she says.


Much the same could be said of the production itself, in which the audience is carried along with the two actors (Beth Buchanan and Jim Russel) on an ordinary suburban bus, overhearing a conversation that starts out in a very quotidian manner, and gradually evolves into something far more urgent and meaningful.


With a script by Nicola Gunn and direction from Ian Pidd, the discussion canvasses everything from children's Christmas presents to horrible bosses, milk pricing to Saudi Arabian blood money.


The bus becomes a travelling stage show that leaves from Footscray (or the Arts Centre on Sunday) and weaves into and around Docklands before returning to base 60 minutes later. It is quite literally a dramatic departure from conventional theatre, and the effect is strangely – but not unpleasantly – discombobulating.


During a preview show this week, Docklands dwellers and workers stared at the bus as it ambled through the precinct: men in suits wore exasperated expressions as they talked on their mobile phones; a woman pulled on her son's hand to stop him walking into its path. It was hard to tell what was staged and what wasn't.


A general sense of creeping unease is bolstered by a sometimes Morricone-esque soundtrackwhich dips in and out of genres, from eerie country to orchestral to off-kilter, jazzy percussion. At times there is no music at all; at others it rises to a menacing volume.


"I was sort of thinking about the windows of the bus and how they're almost film screens," says composer Tom Fitzgerald. "I'm kind of providing a score for what's going on outside."


Passenger has existed in other incarnations; it was born out of an artist's residency at the Docklands that called for a site-specific work. The production culminates in a little-used truckie's diner stop close to the old Melbourne Yard freight terminal, offering a stunning backdrop of the city viewed from the west.


There's a distinctive Western cinematic flavour to Passenger, too, felt both through the score and in references throughout to the archetypal vigilante cowboy, hell-bent on righting wrongs.


The sense of lawlessness rife in Western films has a modern manifestation here in the context of greedy corporations driven by profits at all costs.


"We were interested in exploring people being disempowered and big corporations having this power," says Wilson.


"What if a cowboy came into that situation – what would they do?"


Passenger is on until March 26.



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