Tell Me I’m Here Review


Is every story a good one for the stage? After seeing Belvoir St Theatre’s Tell Me I’m Here, an adaptation of Anne Deveson’s classic Australian family memoir, I am just not sure. 

Nadine Garner & Tom Conroy in Tell Me I’m Here. Photo by Brett Boardman.

There is a lot to like about this production, most notable among them a stoic and moving performance from Nadine Garner as Anne, the mother who tries everything to save her schizophrenic son Jonathan played by Tom Conroy. Garner is unflinching and vulnerable, subtly taking us by the hand and pulling us through this story. More than once I saw my own mother, standing there, lost, and desperate to get it right for her child. I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed her performance. 

Alongside her are a strong ensemble cast, flitting in and out as the concerned, exasperated, or terribly unhelpful side characters to Anne and Jonathan’s seven-year struggle with complex mental health. The small cast keep up the energy as scenes morph in and out of reality, and narratorial address from Garner. Together they push what could have been a story of dead ends and stagnation along; keeping our attention and only pausing to hit those dead ends when it is earned, making us feel the vicious cycle of a terrible health system. All of this is directed with great energy and skill by director Letitia Cáceres, whose work I would love to see more of. 

Much praise must also go to the design team, with particularly effective lighting design by Veronique Benett helping to shift us in time and space, as the action is contained in a stark white set by Stephen Curtis. Together Curtis and Benett create a pristine and ordered world that will come undone as Jonathan does. His presence an explosion that breaks the illusion of a perfect middle-class life for his parents and siblings. 

There in lies the problem though. As the work is told entirely from Anne’s perspective, we see the experience of Jonathan from the outside. We experience the problems he caused for others. We watch the wake of his destruction. I think this perspective would not have me at such unease in the original memoir; after all, it is the story of a mother and her son so any accusations of dramatization there are hollow and unfair. But here and now, adapted by a new writer and played out by a cast of strangers, years after Anne and Jonathan have both passed, there is a sense of otherness to Jonathan that had me at odds. 

Tom Conroy in Tell Me I’m Here. Photo by Brett Boardman.

Throughout the work, we are asked to empathise with the plight of those who had to bear his difficulties – but not often are we given a chance to empathise directly with Jonathan. He is notably not like us. As I watched, I wondered if this story would be told on one of Australia’s mainstages if Anne Deveson was not also a respected broadcast journalist? If Anne had not been his mother, would any one of us in the audience have bought a ticket to hear Jonathan’s story? While Tom Conroy approaches the role with respect and nuance, there is a constant overcast of well-intentioned pity shrouding Jonathan that is baked into the production, and remnants of 70’s attitudes towards those experiencing mental ill health. At no fault of the actors, it all feels a bit dated and condescending to those who live with complex mental illness today. 

As the lights come back up and the cast took their bows, we applauded. Many stood for an ovation. As I looked around the room, I couldn’t know the experiences of those I sat beside during this two-and-a-half-hour play. Perhaps there were some in attendance who have been touched by mental illness in the ways the real Anne and Jonathan were. But as Conroy took his bow, the applause for a job well done felt like an exercise in the room’s collective privilege. Conroy could shrug off this character and accept our admiration. I doubt Jonathan ever enjoyed such a response from strangers while he lived. As I think about the production now, I wonder how many people affected by complex mental illness have the time, desire, or financial ability to attend this production. I wonder who this production is really for. 

Lily, 24 [she/her]


In the upstairs theatre at Belvoir St, an empty room with a wooden table, array of book cabinets and a blank white wall greet the audience. Lights go down and two actors fill the space. The otherwise uninhabited room swiftly embraces the nature of a hospital and the scene of a child entering the world.

Nadine Garner & Tom Conroy in Tell Me I’m Here. Photo by Brett Boardman.

Weaving in and out of narration and firsthand experience is the strong character of Anne Deveson, powerfully portrayed by Nadine Garner. Stepping into the motherly role, she narrates her first encounters with her newborn son and engagingly recounts his difficult, unusual, and loving childhood through adolescence. The boy – Jonathan, mind-blowingly embodied by Tom Conroy, presents curiously different to his surrounding social environment. The unfolding of the story reveals that he is being robbed of the simple mental stability that many of us take for granted, and is diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Tell Me I’m Here explores the raw and real connection between the individual and their mind.  Managing to cleverly remove the stigma and stereotypical, damaging representation of the diagnosis, Veronica Nadine Gleeson has written a truly extraordinary script, that gives Anne Deveson’s story the justice it deserves. In collaboration with Gleeson and a clear, hefty amount of research, director Leticia Caceres translates this from page to stage in an incredibly abstract and visually stunning way that promotes important questions and self-reflection. Set designer Stephen Curtis intelligently presents us with so-called ‘Anne’s space’ – a clean and simple set, remaining moderately similar throughout the first half of the production. Although, further into the piece, the white wall acts as a canvas for the character of Jonathan to honestly and expressively illustrate the intertwining chaos yelling at full volume in his head. Curtis researched drawings from people diagnosed with schizophrenia and implemented that into the work, providing a further authentic audience understanding.

Sean O’Shea, Nadine Garner, Raj Labade & Jana Zvedeniuk in Tell Me I’m Here. Photo by Brett Boardman.

An unbelievingly emotionally demanding role is brilliantly executed by Garner from beginning to end, barely leaving the stage. She not only conducts the script and space in an amazingly engaging way but also forms an extremely complex and deep connection with Conroy as Jonathan, that grows and retracts in a myriad of different ways. Conroy performs such a role that entertains every fibre of his being. It is truly magnificent to see a performer have the courage and creative risk to be able to portray the chilling and heartbreaking story to the extent that it was told. That statement carries onto the small ensemble of four, consisting of Jane Zvedeniuk, Sean O’Shea, Raj Labade, and Deborah Galanos. Shapeshifting from family members, to rock stars and hippy self-proclaimed ‘therapists’, they brought to life the environment that added to the growing sense of complete lack of control and stability that surrounded Anne and Jonathan. 

Tell Me I’m Here opens our eyes, hearts, and minds to the remarkable beauty and dreadful horrors that uninvitingly lurk around in our consciousness. It is confrontational, tragic and sometimes hilarious as if to make something out of a truly unfair, helpless reality. Breaking conventional theatrical norms and asking questions that many artists are too afraid to touch, made for an astounding piece of theatre. It was an absolute pleasure to watch something that felt so ‘out of the box’ be resurrected before my eyes.

5 Stars.

Elodie, 17 [she/her]

Belvoir’s Tell Me I’m Here plays at the Belvoir St. Theatre until the 25th September. Buy tickets here.