As Ava Walsh waves her dildo around the house and celebrates the privilege of remaining pyjamaed on a Saturday morning, her enthusiasm for this indulgence is mirrored by the bubbly energy of the crowd at the Lithuanian Club. The audience is almost waiting with laughter ready for the bumbling prison guards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to shuffle through Ava’s door, throw cuffs around her wrists, and transport us all to women’s prison that will play host to the University of Melbourne Music Theatre Association (UMMTA)’s production of Chicks Dig It.
Ava Walsh, a 25 year old first time offender, who chose to bite back at exploitative unpaid employment by stealing her wages, acts as a portal for us to meet a host of charming characters inside the prison walls. As Ava meets her new home, we meet her new family, and the transgender inmate Jet, who is serving a life sentence, quickly becomes the centrepiece of the show. Not only because it is his plan to escape that catalyses events towards their climax, but because his fight to survive in the brutally transphobic criminal justice system shines through as one of hard struggle among the somewhat frivolous gags and anecdotes that account for the other inmates’ back stories. Slapstick as the majority of the characters may appear, the absurdism brings momentum to the stage, and it is pleasing to follow the lives of inmates who are both fierce and funny.
Performances across the whole cast are strong and engaging, with vibrant choreography devised by Emily Bolton. Jo Dalstead, as Ava Walsh, and Nabs Adnan, as Jet, combine to form a delightful chalk-and-cheese pair, softening to each other and their intertwined fate. Georgia Sexton’s robust performance as Warnie the Warden is reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s The Trunchbull, and much as it is jarring to watch Warnie bust a move while singing about torturing inmates, such is the surreal potential of musical theatre.
The emancipatory atmosphere of Chicks Dig It is satisfying to see, and a credit to the writing and direction of Coco Garner Davis and Victoria Hofflin. That the inmates resist the abuses of Warnie the Warden, and plot to circumvent Jet’s life sentence, match the show’s upbeat and light hearted tone. As Jet’s story and solo numbers demonstrate, there is always room for the serious among the silly, and yet there are serious questions left unanswered that are sorely missed on stage. For one, the drastic and ongoing increase in the number of incarcerated women in Australia, and the rise of the for-profit private prison. Another, the kind of sentences women are being charged with, and what they say about the effectiveness, or rather, the exploitative nature of the criminal justice system today.
And most critically, the question of why First Nations women make up 34% of the prison population in Australia, yet only 2% of the national adult population. Davis and Hofflin clearly have a strong, critical, and feminist interest in contemporary politics, or they would not be shining the spotlight on a demographic of our population that are systematically isolated and neglected. What Chicks Dig It could be, if it were to question the ongoing crisis that is the incarceration of far too many First Nations women, is a show of unknown potential. In the interim, it is one that challenges the gender oppression faced by women locked up, armed with boisterous antics and feel good tunes.