The Melbourne Fringe always exposes interesting plays and venues and the collaboration of Dog Theatre with ROARE’s presentation of Bombshells by revered Aussie playwright Joanna Murray-Smith at Wick Theatre in Brunswick is a great new find and delight for this reviewer, though not for those who have smartly been on board since its inception. Written as separate monologues, we follow the journey of six women at different stages in their lives – both landmark occasions such as preparation for a wedding ceremony or the ordinary humdrum as a housewife and mother. This 2001 play was made famous by the legendary Caroline O’Connor who played all 6 women at Melbourne Theatre Company but this offering casts 6 individuals, all graduates of the 16th Street 2015 programme, playing one role each, as has been done quite effectively by quite a few companies in the past.
AFI recipient and Green Room award winning director Kaarin Fairfax has unified these seemingly disparate monologues through style, tone and many smart alternatives in staging. Her work with each of the girls individually showed mostly careful attention to details in movement, stillness and choices in vocal delivery. The only annoyance was that with flat audience seating some of the floor blocking was difficult to see and engage with from further back rows. House of Vnholy’s stark white set with small individual touches purposely allowed quick shifts in time and place for each of the women’s sections; the use of a cord strapping frenetic mother Meryl Louise Davernport to symbolically represent her tie to responsibilities was most clever, whilst the placement of the wedding dress on a hanger that the character Theresa McTerry literally climbed up into made for an entertaining point of difference. Breaking up these 20 minute pieces was an effective lighting design that included swirling lights of crazy disco as Meryl travels to the supermarket, changing stage spots and colours for Mary O’Donnell’s St Brigid’s talent quest routine or dazzling flashing lights for Zoe Struthers diva stage show that were always inventive and well chosen. This was complimented with invigorating and modern sound choices throughout by Mick Bell which really filled and connected these pieces in style and manner.
Act 1 opened with Ruby Swann actively portraying the stressed out, overworked mother Meryl. She was engaging from start to finish, drawing us into her nonstop frantic life and all it entails. She confidently used the whole stage and knew when to change tone and focus for witty asides to draw a laugh or compassion. The snap double ending of the almost groundhog day nature of her existence was most apt. Ruby Duncan’s depiction of Tiggy Entwhistle was a good contrast to the scenes before and after – a more still and focused delivery of a burned woman speaking at a community gathering about cacti. Whilst the closing moments showed moving fragility and pathos, it did seem that some earlier choices in the piece were very one level in delivery – for example, missing the anxious increased rise and agitation required by the lines as Tiggy slips from her topic into personal angst and then smoothly revert back to her topic. Angelica Angwin completely embodied Mary O’Donnell, a young teen intent on winning another St Brigid’s talent quest. She energetically encapsulated the teenage overconfident brattiness mixed with a vivacious range of facial expressions that peaked perfectly when she realised her routine had been stolen and lead to a hilarious improvisation performance.
Emily Riley believably filled the shoes of bride to be Theresa McTerry at the start of Act 2. Strutting the stage with declarations of how happy she is, her 20 minute descent into fear and uncertainty was perfectly timed and pitched. Riley knows exactly how to emote a line or thought thread as well as use her lithe body for comic and tragic effect. She was always completely immersed in her role and story, and the real highlight of the night if you had to pick one. Angie Glavas had the most challenging role of Winsome Webster, a 60+ widow yearning for something to fill the void of her life. Her hypnotic tone thankfully drew us in as she sat remarkably still for most of the tale, certainly differentiating it from the other monologues but within its own allotment risked losing engagement. However, she was still endearing as she solidly built the crescendo in her storytelling of reading to blind man as part of a social community project and its surprising orgasmic resolution. The finale performance was Olivia Ramsay channelling every diva imaginable in the role of Zoe Struthers, a down on her luck glamour cabaret performer whose narrative interludes were intercut with ballsy song renditions. Olivia is surely an impressive singer, and whilst the opening of this monologue and choice to sit too early in the piece irked a little she built this piece to be quite striking and memorable by the halfway point and right through to the end which was both charming and tragically funny.
One note to make about the casting is that if you are going to cast various women for this play then age appropriateness seems to be a beneficial aspect that was overlooked whether intentionally or not. It doesn’t sit well to see a 30 year old trying to pass off as a 60yo widow or a 20 something playing a 40 year old mother (with hairstyling that seemed age inappropriate anyway) no matter how good their performances. The cleverness and talent of playing different ages can only suffice when one or perhaps two are playing the multiple roles like O’Connor displayed at MTC to fulfil an overall intention of the playwright and the work itself. This comment is not intended to at all detract from the quality of performances by those actors who were significantly playing out of their age range.
This quibble aside, this is a fabulous offering by new talent that deserved greater audience numbers and support, and there are a few faces within this production that no doubt we will see more of in future. Within 20 minutes we knew about each of these women, what their lives were about, their preoccupations, emotional responses and inner secrets. It is a hard thing to accomplish in limited time and these girls did an awesome job of entertaining us all there, well done.