I was a little lost looking for HOUSE at the Big West Village to see Birdcage Thursdays. Maps were telling me to head to a car park, I was sure that couldn’t be right. But as I arrived at the car park, the bold yellow flags of Big West Festival waving me in, I was pleasantly surprised. Sitting in the car park was the shell of a house, which Big West Festival has turned a wonderful festival hub – with beanbags and comfy seats to sit and chat – and an intimate venue space. The building is a prototype dwelling for the sustainable housing that is being installed by social housing services. Once the festival is over, it will become someone’s home.
This is a perfect example of the wonderful spirit of the Big West Festival. It is a real shame that it only runs once every two years, the artistic integrity and inclusive community vibes that emanate from this festival is proof of the integral role that the arts plays in creating a vibrant, cohesive and welcoming community. The work I have seen at this year’s festival have been thoughtful, provocative, addressing issues that clearly matter to the artists and audiences. It is a fantastic platform for the community to speak and be heard.
A co-production from La Mama and Big West Festival, Birdcage Thursdays is an important story to tell. The story of an ageing woman, Helene, struggling against her hoarding tendencies, needing to clear her apartment for an inspection that will see her evicted from her home if she fails. Despite being encouraged (sometimes aggressively) by her adult daughter, and supported (reluctantly) through the process by a community worker, Helene can’t seem to let go of the boxes of, well, junk that plague her home.
But this quietly moving play, written by Sandra Fiona Long and directed by Caitlin Dullard, clears away the clutter and reveals her seemingly unhealthy attachment to her possessions come from a place of heartbreak and fear.
The process that the production team went through to produce the work is an excellent example of responsible representation and storytelling. Writing the script, Long drew from her own knowledge and experiences but also consulted with professionals. She and Dullard both worked closely with Tania Reid from ‘For the Crowded House’, a company that offers support and advice to people who are affected by hoarding. It is working relationships like this that will ensure that theatre continues to evolve as a means of creating awareness and facilitating concrete social change. The production team are holding several Q&A sessions with Reid to discuss the process and the nature of hoarding, which is an excellent resource for effected audience members.
The show itself was very entertaining. The laughter that often erupted was not derisive or condescending but the laughter of recognition, shared experiences of bowls club politics or thrice-weekly exercise regimes created a sense of authenticity in the piece and brought the audience and the characters together. The performances from Long , Genevieve Picot and Sophia Constantine were all very solid: they used the intimate venue well, filling the space with a unique energy from each character. Constantine’s physicality was particularly striking as she embodied, at times, Helene’s pet cockatiel. The way she held her body and turned her head was incredibly parrot-like, and she had the birdcalls down-pat.
Picot’s performance as Helene was simply wonderful. Awash with charm and an endearing stubbornness, she drew the audience in only to break our hearts. Although I understood her daughter’s frustration, I never felt frustrated at her ourselves as Picot makes the connection between Helene and her possessions remarkably emotionally tangible. The highlight was a beautiful sequence from Long and Picot that illustrated that behind each battered cardboard box full of newspapers there was a fear of forgetting, of losing loved ones. Long and Picot navigated this scene with a heartbreaking delicacy, it was a wonderful moment.
Joanne Mott’s set was simple but expressive, with stacks of cardboard boxes built up and knocked down as the characters traversed their difficult territory. Though I was a little surprised to see a play in such a (relatively) small space, it actually worked wonders for the story, creating a sense of claustrophobia alongside the natural intimacy. It was a very open space, too, with the wind blowing through the open windows and doorways. We could hear the traffic on the busy street below, but it added to the sense of busyness that was suggested by the set. There were a few moments when the action and set didn’t quite work together, though. During one scene they were labeling boxes with a touch of the hand. On several occasions they tapped the same box and proclaimed a different item, it is a small gesture but it broke the magic a little bit.
The audience were arranged on three sides of the stage area, and while this added to a sense of intimacy and involvement in the action, I did find myself straining to hear some lines that were directed towards the other side of the room. The sound design was quite effective overall – the soft hum of a rumba playing underneath some scenes – but at one point there was a tech-heavy dance song using a remixed line of dialogue which was quite jarring compared to the subtlety of the overall design.
There were also elements of the script that I found jarring. While the voices were authentic and the resolution of the story satisfying but not pandering, there were motifs in the writing that didn’t really add to the rich, layered text that Long had clearly so carefully crafted. While I enjoyed the idea having a ‘narrator’ character, I didn’t think her interjections were always valuable. The script was divided in ‘segments’, which were announced by this character, and it interrupted the flow of the story, jolting us out of the thoroughly engaging dialogue. I also didn’t quite understand the motivation for verbalizing some of the stage directions, which I found distracting.
What I really loved about Birdcage Thursdays is that it is a story about women, told by women. It is a thoughtful representation of intergenerational relationships and a well-constructed exploration of a very common mental health issue. If this is the future of community arts festivals, we have a lot to look forward to at Big West Festival in the future.