Janet Hawley August 11, 2012
Hope ... director Sarah Goodes, Thomson and Helen Thomson during rehearsal. Photo: Grant Sparkes-Carroll
Erik Thomson takes his warm, blokey persona back to the stage.
After five years reigning as the king of feel-good, wholesome family TV drama, Erik Thomson, aka Dave Rafter, is plunging into gothic horror.
In another switch, the amiable, blokey star of Channel Seven's Packed to the Rafters is returning to tread the boards for the first time in years.
Thomson will star in surreal thriller The Splinter, which opens at the Sydney Theatre Company this week. This new play is written by a daughter of Australian theatre royalty John Bell and Anna Volska, Hilary Bell.
''This is my 22nd play, but I did 20 of them in my first eight years out of drama school in New Zealand,'' Thomson says.
He loves the discipline of returning to theatre and his first play for the STC.
''It's like a boot-camp workout,'' he says, smiling. In TV [All Saints, Rafters] and film [The Black Balloon, Somersault], you arrive on set with your performance intact to shoot that day.
''In theatre, it's luxury to have a month exploring and rehearsing your part.''
Though he's playing a husband and father in The Splinter, his role and dark psychological journey is a far cry from the quintessential optimistic family man he portrays in Rafters, where life's joys and woes are rendered in a lighter manner.
The Splinter has only three characters, all on-stage for 75 minutes: the father (Thomson), the mother (Helen Thomson, no relation) and their five-year-old daughter, Laura, played by a life-size puppet.
The play opens the night Laura, abducted nine months previously, is suddenly returned home by police, with no explanation. The irony is that after enduring nine months of agonising searching, the parents now have what they want. But at this joyous moment, everything starts to fall apart.
''The parents take Laura to their coastal holiday shack for 10 days, to be alone together and reconnect,'' Thomson says, ''but Laura won't speak. The more silent Laura is, the more both parents worry - differently.
''Laura has changed. She's taller, thinner; her silent behaviour unrecognisable from the boisterous Laura they knew.
''Now the play enters the world of Brothers Grimm, The Changeling, the gothic horror realm … a splinter of doubt enters the father's eye and heart. This is not his daughter, she must be another girl; or if it is Laura, she's been entered by demons, who are outside in the dark now, watching and manipulating the family. He can trust no one.
''The mother defiantly maintains Laura is their daughter, combs her hair, cooks her favourite meals, cossets her with love.''
A splinter now wedges between mother and father.
''It's a very intense play, with many possibilities and ambiguities before the mystery is answered,'' Thomson says. ''Audiences will depart, arguing the father's reactions were correct, or no, the mother made the right choices.''
Bell and director Sarah Goodes say Thomson was cast as the father because he exudes a lovely, natural warmth.
''The father must be someone audiences can relate to and care about as he goes on this scary journey,'' Bell says. ''If we cast someone who is cold and unpleasant, the audience will cut themselves off from him.''
Bell adds: ''That gorgeous bloke Erik plays in Rafters is not too far from the real Erik.''
The Scottish-born actor, whose family emigrated to New Zealand when he was seven, bashfully admits: ''Dave Rafter is a soul mate. He's a part of me, not all of me. His life is much simpler than mine.
''But roles that err on the side of good appeal to me. A lot of roles I've played - whether I've attracted them or chosen them - have more hope in them than despair.''
The Splinter is at the Wharf Theatre until September 15.