The Patricia Cornelius double header “Love / Shit” at 45 Downstairs is topical and hard hitting theatre at its best. Invited by Artistic Director, Mary Lou Jelbart, to once again stage these works before departing for world premieres in Venice and Edinburgh, these pieces have not lost any of their relevance or punch since their first outings years ago. Both pieces, of about an hour duration apiece, are directed by Cornelius’ long time friend, collaborator and equally multi award winning, Susie Dee.  

Shit begins with one of the most explosive and captivating openers seen in a one act play – the tirade of curses by Billy (Nicci Wilks) is brutal, yet surprisingly funny. Her anger is palatable but almost too much for her friends Sam (Peta Brady) and Bobby (Sarah Ward) to bear who chastise her crass storytelling yet can’t help but replicate the swearing rant in the end. Angry, tough women like this are not often seen in theatre – it is considered dangerous yet so important because it challenges our perceptions of female behaviour and the beauty of powerful emotion, language and friendship. It is what Cornelius does best. First staged by the same group back in 2015, it has lost none of its freshness or clout. The trio female ensemble, back for a seventh season, is polished yet raw. Their control of pace and rhythm is beautifully executed from the beginning and throughout. The characters of all three are clearly distinct and defined. Their friendship has a history of shared circumstance within the foster system – and they are all damaged, though differently, from this experience. It makes for unpredictable and exciting storytelling. Wilks’ portrayal is perhaps the most brittle, yet thoroughly engaging with her rough explosive tension and her default to crass humour to hide her sub conscious pain. The link of her inability to ever cry, to the final scene was incredibly moving without being overdone. Brady plays her role with more fragile hopefulness. Her longing for something more is derided by the others as pathetic yet totally endears herself to us. The bravado of Bobby meshed with traces of vulnerability was utterly captivating.  Her expressive facial reactions were a story within itself. Her self-loathing about her own female body was brilliantly executed with support from the other two.

This production succeeds precisely because it is so confronting, so visceral. Dee’s attention to the rhythm of language, the carefully staged movement, and knowing when and how to draw out the deeper layered moments of impact showed real skill. This collective understand not just the poetic words, but also how to convey the pertinent messages. Breaking up these ruthless moments of revelation were perfectly timed stylised silent moments (underscored by a powerhouse soundtrack and great shadowy lighting effect) that hint at how the girls have ended up in their current predicament. At times funny, then foreboding, then downright brutal – the strength of the dialogue is complimented by these unspoken vignettes.  At first we may think these women are nothing like us, and yet as tiny titbits get shared, moments exposed, we see there is a universality to the experience of women – the fear of being taken advantage of, abuse, loneliness, bending to the power of men, self protection, the importance of sharing, the need for love, female friendship and also of honesty. The contrast between bitterness, seething rage, to the gentler parts of their lives was navigated perfectly. That fine line between a punch in the face and a hug. It was practically flawless in every respect – such an immersive pleasure to be a part of. 

Love almost begins the same as Shit; an audience directed monologue, this time of passionate love from Tanya (Tahlee Fereday), confessing her adoration for Annie (Carly Sheppard). Their commitment to each other is tested by drug addiction, homelessness, unemployment and the downward spiral of turning tricks. Annie longs to save money to get out of their downtrodden life, but really the money from her sex work always goes towards their next fix. Tanya’s two stints in jail result in fragile Annie finding comfort in the arms of Lorenzo (Benjamin Nichol) who had a constant ominous presence with his back to us before his arrival. The threat of something sinister looming. When all three reunite, and attempt to live, work, and love together in the one place, the play takes a dangerous dark turn towards unhealthy co-dependence and exploitation. This is not a world known to many but it is compelling to watch. The lethal cycle of drugs, tricks and emotional manipulation seems inescapable for Annie, forcing our empathy and our despair as the situation gets more toxic and by the end creates such a hollow feeling of hopelessness. And yet this is the reality for some people on our streets and an important story to share.  Dee’s decision to again break up the confronting verbal exchanges with soundless vignettes allowed for the opportunity to witness the addictive nature of the drug high, the pain and declining health of Annie on the bathroom floor, the downward spiral of habit and noxious love. Nichol’s fully body immersion as the cunning Lorenzo was mesmerising to watch. Sheppard’s descent was raw, heart wrenching and utterly believable. Fereday’s presence, even when observing, was commanding – striking that fine balance between likeable and dangerous. The relationships between all three felt authentic and the emotional depths each of the actors committed to was extremely commendable. The only critique to make was this play felt a little long, perhaps ten minutes in the writing or staging – not as tightly controlled and executed as Shit but it certainly left the audience with the same feeling of potency and impact.

Marg Horwell’s design for Shit allowed for freedom of movement both on and around the large concrete wall. The small raised box above the glitter confetti in Love gave a striking contrast to the lives of the characters. Special shout out to stage manager Rebecca Moore who meticulously set up and more importantly cleaned up all that pretty confetti! Anna Liebzeit’s sound design combined with Andy Turner’s lighting design really added a sense of energy, foreboding and overwhelming anger that complimented and lifted the mood at just the right moments – especially in Shit.

The connection between Shit and Love (if one is to be found, or even necessary) is perhaps Cornelius’ preoccupation of women trapped by society, by labels, by circumstance. Cornelius is a master of giving a platform for those voiceless in our community; the oppressed, the marginalised, the battered and bruised souls- both physically, emotionally and spiritually. She opens a keyhole into this alien world, draws us in, grabs you tight and leaves you smacked and breathless by the end. The surprising recognition is you start to realise we may have more in common with these people than we think. But both these plays also leave you feeling so impressed; by the power of Cornelius’ lexis, the clever staging, the powerful immersive acting. And, all of it, local talent! How very lucky we are to have something so creative, relevant and mind-blowingly well executed right on our doorstep. A must see.

Shit images: Sebastian Bourges

Love images: Pier Carthew

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