It’s not the first time playwright Lally Katz has focused her story on our senior citizens and the single women approaching middle age that love them. They say write what you know, and certainly Katz understands and adores her subjects, bringing these women in particular to the forefront and having them take pride of place.
Set in a fictional Caulfield retirement village, Minnie (Nancye Hayes) has recently lost her bridge partner in a swimming accident, leaving her open for an approach from another keen bridge player Liraz (Sue Jones), who’s recognised Minnie’s playing skills and envisages a new partnership for the pair. Minnie is a controlled (or controlling) and earnest woman, hence Liraz with her brassy and insensitive attitude, doesn’t come across as an attractive new teammate prospect for her. However, Liraz is persistent in her pestering.
When Minnie notices the charming nature of Liraz’s grandson and regular Saturday night dinner guest, Ichabod (Peter Paltos) she spies an opportunity to set up her unlucky in love granddaughter Rachel (Virginia Gay) and solve the problem of continuing her family line. Minnie will agree to the bridge partnership as long as Liraz agrees to encourage Ichabod to date Rachel.
Casting two legends of the Australian stage in Hayes and Jones has ensured this production is strongly anchored by expert performances. Hayes is brittle and crafty as the more genteel retiree Minnie. Demanding and often cold towards her granddaughter, she’s none the less adored by her hard-of-hearing husband Morris (Rhys McConnochie). But it’s Jones that gets all the best lines and delights as the boisterous Liraz, flying around the retirement village in her mobility scooter, with her mind set on the singular goal of winning the Seniors National Championship Cup.
Gay’s Rachel is a pitiable character, painfully aware of her desperate and dateless status. Why she regularly returns to visit her berating grandmother is difficult to comprehend, but is perhaps somewhat explained by the caring nature of her grandfather, despite his short temper. McConnochie is a wonderfully skilful actor, a little wasted here in a mostly second fiddle role of a second fiddle person, but he brings charm to the part as Morris’ heartbreaking loyalty to his wife is demonstrated. Paltos is adorably nerdy as the flute playing theoretical physicist.
What is hard to reconcile about this production is its tone. As directed by Anne-Louise Sarks (who has also served as dramaturg on the script) it is played as a broad comedy with every joke, line and look emphasised as though it is being clarified for the hard of hearing, something which Georgina Naidu’s character, Aged Care worker Norma, must do for Morris in order to be understood by him. It feels like massively overplaying the story considering the intimate nature of the Fairfax Studio, and the characterisations, particularly of the supporting characters, feels very stagey. Even the scene change compositions by Stefan Gregory feel like the underscoring to Hey, Hey it’s Saturday sketches, such is the subtlety at play here.
To a certain degree, this artistic choice makes sense, as Katz has sprinkled her story with dark humour and a number of obvious jokes that could encourage a burlesque style, but this leaves a quite a few moments that are written with real pathos to be deflated of their meaning. A greater degree of restraint in the playing level might allow these moments to shine more effectively, without ruining the highly camp and thoroughly black twist that Katz’s story has in its tail, which comes commendably as a complete surprise.
Mel Page’s peach coloured set design captures the banal style of a 1980s decorated retirement village, but it’s about as interesting to view as it would be to live in. Likewise, her costume designs seem to show a level of disdain for the characters, making each of them without exception look like they literally, and unnecessarily have no dress sense.
Minnie and Liraz has a lot of potential, at the very least to be picked up by every amateur theatre company in Australia, looking to keep their geriatric subscribers happy by programming plays with characters the same age as their audience. But even without that prospect, this story has good bones, and therefore the possibility of a more satisfying rendition. It just needs a lighter touch. As it stands, thanks to the performances of its leading ladies, this production is good fun, if a little irksome.