She Said Theatre commemorates the fallen and the forgotten.
Fortyfivedownstairs presents Fallen, wicked women in London’s 1800s reformed into wives for the emigrated settlers in the British colonies.
Seanna van Helten’s exhilarating and confronting script is based on the education of lower-class women in a refuge established by the esteemed author, and benefactor Charles Dickens. Her modern take of the traumatic time in history is also peppered with lighthearted quips.
Lovers of romantic historical fiction, be prepared for two extensively choreographed fight scenes. The ‘catfight’ between Julia and Martha demonstrates the pent-up frustrations of women being educated solely to placate the male settlers. All the same, Seanna van Helten’s adaptation is an authentic representation of women who suffered in stifled silence.
Matron sits at her desk taking notes for her report and presides over operations. She is a stoic stone-faced widow and believes her education prepares young women for married life. The wayward women are subjected to daily allocution, singing and dance lessons, as well as fine dining etiquette and, are made to share a roster of chores in the cottage and garden.
Four women are bound for the Australian colony in a fortnight. Julia (Gemma Bird Matheson), Isabella (Artenis Ioannides), Georgie (Veronica Thomas) and Martha (Tahlee Fereday) complete a delightful dance lesson and retire to the dormitory. Isabella incites a spiteful game involving a hairbrush to reinforce her dominant place in the pecking order. The game escalates into vicious bullying against the introverted Georgie and Julia is left with a bloodied eye.
All the women are not who they seem. The clever symbolism alludes to the women’s former indiscretions and traumatic lives in prison and workhouses. The close confines of cottage life brew lies and temper tantrums. Matron tries to exercise control for favours. She monitors any tensions or possible defectors with the help of two internal snitches. Matron ignores Isabella’s nightly indiscretions with a local lad and gifts Georgie a pet mouse.
The women endure another droll fine dining lesson with Matron and they poetically parrot the finer points of cutlery and table service. The Matron, preoccupied with her reports to please the benefactor, is completely unaware the women are more concerned with the pending boat journey to Australia than gravy boats.
The women coexist in the cottage on a short fuse. Julia is on scullery duties instead of tending her beloved garden. Isabella discovers Georgie’s pet mouse and realises Matron has two snitches.
The set design gives the performance a three-dimensional Globe theatre perspective. The actors perform precision and entertaining set changes. Beds fold down from every corner of the stage for the dormitory scenes. Delicate music and lighting dress and undress each scene.
Floorboards lift out to reveal cabbages growing in soil and the central table is a character in its own right, particularly in the scullery scene. Look out for Martha and Rosina’s dough kneading, which is reminiscent of an episode on Master Chef.
Then the dynamics change when new woman Rosina (Jing-Xuan Chang) arrives. She rivals Isabella’s bravado and goads her towards achieving her independent goals.
The women weed the garden, sing patriotic songs and fold bed linen. Fallen questions, whether colonial women were weeds pulled out of their home country?
The British characters speak in rough raw Australian accents, with the exception of the Matron’s educated accent and seem somewhat out of place. However, Fallen explores individual stories of similar conversations just as current and relevant today.
Artenis Ioannides gives a frightening portrayal of the overpowering and abusive Isabella. Tahlee Fereday is an equally convincing violent individual in the ‘cat fight’ with Julia. Veronica Thomas is a multifaceted performer as Georgie when she emerges from the meek and mild mousey type to a forthright and underhanded snitch. Gemma Bird Matheson is Martha’s unwilling victim and the epitome of the exploitation of women in the era. Zoe Boeson and Gemma Bird Matheson’s combined talents deliver touching backstory scenes. Jing-Xuan Chang is a wonderful silent achiever as the unassuming Rosina and Zoe Boeson incarnates a cold Matron to the end of the final scene.
The fallen women find their feet in this uncompromising production. Penny Harpham’s direction is flawless with a superbly cast assemble of women. Fallen is an open forum and the dialogue continues.