Set in 1998, amid the proliferation of chatrooms, a fascination with the occult and some of the witchy horror movies of the era, such as May (2002) and The Craft (1996) – The Exact Dimensions of Hell sets out to examine the desires of young women and the abuse of power within uneven relationships.

This production reflects the themes and aesthetic, albeit with an Australian suburban twist. Despite its promising premise, however, Bridget Mackey’s latest work doesn’t quite reach the heights it could.

Matilda Gibbs in The Exact Dimensions of Hell. Photo © Darren Gill

The play commences with an early-chat room conversation, featuring explicit exchanges (naturally) and Fiona Horne disses. Thus, the groundwork is laid for the eventual meet-up between The Girl (Matilda Gibbs) and The Witch (Daniel Schlusser).

In this exchange, Gibbs exudes enthusiastic angst, clad in tartan and lace-up boots. She convincingly embodies the essence of a teen, oscillating between mock-confidence and insecurity.

Schlusser plays a pseudo-scholar of the occult and an aspiring cult-leader, held back by a terminal illness that he later weaponises in his grooming of The Girl.

He frequently quotes the occultist and self-professed prophet Aleister Crowley, whom The Witch reveres. Through fluid and terrifying physicality (he enacts Tai chi-like movements) and grotesque facial expressions, he metamorphoses from a creepy teacher to the distant voices of The Girls’ friends, before eventually blurring into other significant men in her life. By contrast, Gibbs’ physicality is far less convincing, her movements over-the-top, bordering on comical.

Matilda Gibbs and Daniel Schlusser in The Exact Dimensions of Hell. Photo © Darren Gill

Mackey’s script does well to twist the familiar tropes of ‘charming cult leader’ and ‘victim’. The Girl, for example, portrays herself as misunderstood and isolated, yet her teenage repartee suggests that she’s more affected by curiosity and boredom than she is with study and spells. The Witch is far from charming; he’s shrunken by loneliness and his own mortality. The Girl’s eventual sexual assault (a scene prefaced in the program guide) takes an even more sinister tone within this dynamic.

Speaking of, director Alice Darling’s handling of the assault scene, alongside the sound design, lighting and blocking is expertly handled. It’s exposed and confronting, without being overly graphic.

From this point, the production finally leans into the kind of surrealism we have come to expect from Mackey (Love/Chamberlain and Fools Gold). While there’s a stand-out scene between The Girl and The Witch in which they dance to The Stooge’s I Wanna Be Your Dog, vacillating between slow-motion and the red wine induced present, it’s a shame there wasn’t more. The bulk of the setup is instead centred around dialogue between Schlusser and Gibbs, which lacks the tension required to fully justify its duration.

Set in Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs theatre and situated in the Australian suburbs of the late ‘90s, the minimalist set does little to showcase the era in which it is set. With only pink and yellow fabric hanging from the ceiling and a single chair, it falls on Mackey’s script and Meg Wilson’s projections of swirling red to set the tone essential for a horror production.

While the lighting design does offer standout moments, particularly during the feverish climactic scenes, its occasional use of bright light, such as when Gibbs climbs the ladder in the climax, detracts significantly from the play’s horror elements.

While the production effectively explores themes of power and the desires of young women, it ultimately fails to offer any ground-breaking insights on the subject. Nostalgic 90s kids may enjoy this production; otherwise watch one of the aforementioned horror films and you’ll likely get the gist.

The Exact Dimensions of Hell plays at fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, until 28 April.

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