When all we do is repress the truth, how much of what we live can be real?
During his decade-long Suffolk stint between the years of ’69 and ’79, Australian writer Randolph Stow produced two novels based on the journey of a man breaking down in the New Guinea islands. To conquer his writer’s block while tackling darker novel Visitants in which the protagonist commits suicide, Stow wrote The Girl Green as Elderflower almost as a ‘What if?’ to his greater work, with lead man Cris on the slow road to recovery while he invests his time in the people and folklore of Suffolk. Often interpreted as a semi-autobiography with Stow’s own adventures from his breakdown on the Guinea islands to the migration to his ‘ancestral farmlands’ in Suffolk, The Girl Green as Elderflower often blurs the line between reality and fever dreamstate in the constant ambiguity of triggers and relapses. Richard Davies’s musical adaptation takes this story and gives it presence, but does not live up to its full potential.
Director Sara Grenfell demonstrates her well-versed theatre knowlege in this La Mama production effectively. Taking the very complex nature of the show and its disconnect in a musical setting, Grenfell’s direction allows the piece to defy its self-sabotaging nature. While the piece has a multitude of sensitive thematic concerns including repression of sexuality, trauma and PTSD, suicide and paranoia, and the overall path of recovery, the story itself does not delve into any of these themes and merely skims the surface, never seeming to want to impart a message to the audience but rather paddle along in its own shallow waters. Despite the inconsistent dips of substance and engagement, however, Grenfell’s hand polishes the rust and lets the clockwork tick on, with moments of genuine naturalism contrasting the literal split onstage of location. The most obvious feat was the immediate alteration of the direction style in the second act fever dream, in which the performers all became exaggerated caricatures in the way they shaped their voices and their gestures, taking us out of reality and into a near-Artaudian world of disparate unease. Her centrality on everything from the characters’ own motives and the location and era all showed through the characters’ interactions and choices, proving her a formidable director. However, the show’s format itself fails her saving grace, and the drastic and unexpected change of pace in the second act unfortunately becomes a barrier more than a convention; while the whole first act sets up our characters and their relationships as well as a unanimous expectancy of a pay-off for “the girl with the green eyes” who keeps reappearing, the second act takes a whole new turn and loses the audience in a confusing babble that does not evolve the plot, instead detracting from the cohesion of its intention as a story and the value and influence of each character upon the protagonist, as well as the protagonist himself in that he becomes a pawn rather than a figurehead in a very post-modern skew on the progression of the story. When things become confusing to an audience, it is incredibly dangerous, and for the second act to devolve all that the first act so carefully constructed without landing an effective ultimation, we are left mildly disappointed and incredibly baffled.
While the most real moments and conversations on stage seemed to deem it more appropriate in a non-musical setting, the piece survives as a musical in a strangely self-dissociative way. Written with quasi-Celtic undertones in a folk pop/rock score, we experience a beautiful musical journey of multilayered harmonies and a very precise stylistic approach. Musical Director Shelley Dunlop flexes her flittering fingers as she trails the piano like her own musical runway, gracing each note with emotive delicacy and each chord with striking gravitas. Her having the cast bring their own musical prowess throughout the piece gives it a much more involved approach, having certain actors shine through a guitar or a violin almost in a way that made them a motif in the music and thus a part of the music in its telling. All in all, despite the slight disconnect of the music with the rest of the play, Dunlop does a masterful job of carrying the pathos-imbued pieces like she herself were the artisan behind its creation.
Telling our story is this incredible cast of multitalented performers. Leading man Billy Sloane takes the role of Cris and really brings a depth to the character’s subtle transactions; Sloane’s finely nuanced and soft-spoken Cris is generally consistent and purely loveable in his gentle-natured character. Christopher Coleman brings light onto the stage with his charismatic ex-priest Jim, the straight-edged holy man who’s chosen to take a curve in the road and go on a wild adventure in the face of his short existence on Earth; Coleman brings an energy and crisp-cut quality to his performance, electrifying the stage floor for everyone sharing it with him to recharge and reboot. Helen Hopkins dons the hat of maternal substance and wisdom in her role of Alicia, the neighbouring mother; her moments of humility with Cris prove the most endearing moments in the show, taking us to the loungerooms with our own mothers. The four children – Marco, Lucy, Mikey and Amabel – are played by Mitchell Wills, Toss Walsh, Nicholas Bell and Chloe Bruer-Jones respectivey, each bringing a particular flair to their unique parts in the show. Wills plays Marco as a stoic youngster who holds his reservations in a face of confidence to mask his insecurities; Walsh and Bell play twins Lucy and Mikey like they are twins in real life, bouncing of each others’ vibrant energies and playfulness. Bruer-Jones is the stand-out of the show ironically in her plain-Jane interpretation of Amabel, the intellectual with a quirky fascination for witchcraft and the world of tarot and prediction; her shyness and little personality is immediately dropped when she is possessed, adopting a range an octave lower and stomping around in intimidation of her peers like a demon indeed stood within her skin.
Tori McCann plays the girl with the green eyes in the first act as a quasi-symbol, but returns in the second act with a much more crucial part; becoming the mother from the folklore fable that Cris constantly ran through his head as a hook of parental abandonment and contempt, McCann paces the floor gracefully but furiously, a tormented woman looking for escape from the millenia of guilt. Her lost baby Malkin is played by Alice Albon, who masterfully sits in a squeaking vocal placement and rings across the space like a crying baby; her large expressions pair beautifully with the incredibly unnatural character, haunting our characters and prancing around the stage like Peeves the Poltergeist from the Harry Potter saga. Liam Dodds plays Matthew, Cris’ longterm best friend from school who took a liking to Cris in a very explicit way, expressing his sexual freedom with a lot of suggestive language that goes to support his bisexuality within the piece; his character then becomes a mute merman from Cris’ fever dream in the second act, and the prime mantlepiece for all of Cris’s inner demons and self-saboteurs in regards to his sexual repression and supression. Giordano Gangl plays Peter the bartender, the big bassy brassy man with a competent air to him; his shining moment as the leader of the pack in the fever dream had him lumbering comically around in his aggressive caricature as he threatened Cris with large gestures straight from a Popeye cartoon.
Designer Chrstina Logan-Bell builds 1960s Suffolk with a clear vision and wholesome execution. Her set design and array of props all come together to both effectively and efficiently construct the world of Cris due to their positioning, their use and their accessibility. With Cris’s room built to one side of the wide space and the abode of his close neighbours on the other, we immediately sense the dissonance between the two spaces despite Cris’s comfortable countenance he adopts towards the neighbouring children, showing his haven as still a troublesome space and no help in being an escape from his own mind. The sentimental clutter of his shelves against his wall to contrast the clean, polished look of theirs speaks levels on a very subtle dimension, even down to the hair and costumes of which each member of the cast has their socio-economic classes and western culture highlighted and heightened. The use of Cris’s bed flipping around to become the bar bench at the local pub was an intelligently considered transition; however, to counteract the smart set designs were the thematic idols like the ouija board and the tarot cards, which, while obviously meaning to serve a deeper purpose, were lost to a script of fallacies and nonsensical symbolism that was never truly explored.
With an immaculate soundscape to create the many different environments, Sound Designer Ryan Smedley’s work is the cherry on top of the production. With background rabble in the bar to the iconic chiming ring of an old landline dial phone, Smedley’s materials are accurate and appropriate. Lighting Designer Shane Grant does a precise job of separating the worlds of fact and fiction, casting a solid open wash on your typical day meeting and the blotchy blues of an oceanic nightmare that is Cris’s internal struggle. Grant’s designs do well in anchoring the audience in an ever-tipping storyline where timeframe is almost lost. To achieve these designs effectively, Stage Manager Laura Barnes steps in to pair the two elements and stitch the fabrics together cleanly and smoothly.
In this day and age, we spend so long trying to find our ‘authentic self’. But in ’61, when The Girl Green as Elderflower was set, anyone outside of the norm of ‘societal self’ was taught to suppress it. The contrast of their era with our current one in their identity really juxtaposes the roots of struggle with self-agency and -efficacy: when today one has too much freedom to find themselves to the point where we don’t know where to start, the one of yesteryear is told to never attempt and to live as a number, a name and a face – nothing more. As soon as those barriers are broken down, however, we start to take hesitant baby steps from our guarded sanctuary; yet we would never expect to be sweeping the planes so soon after we start trying. The Girl Green as Elderflower whispers to us of the glory that is trusting yourself to know who you are, and loving yourself for it, as that is true peace of mind. That is when we can live our most authentic.