***.5 Stars

By Virginia Proud

An enthusiastic audience assembled at Red Stitch on Wednesday evening for the long-awaited opening of Michele Lee’s new play, Single Ladies.

Following up 2018’s Going Down, Lee has once again proved herself an astute observer of Melbourne life. Fast paced, loaded with humour, she shines a light on inner city Collingwood, where overpriced cups of tea are downed in grungy alcoves, and a woman might conceivably shop naked at the Coles on Smith St.

The single ladies in question, Lilike (Caroline Lee), Anne (Andrea Swift) and Rachel (Jem Lai), are unlikely companions, drawn from Collingwood’s social melange. Lil, long-time resident, proud immigrant and local provocateur first meets Anne, a middle aged, outwardly conservative downsizer, to negotiate the return of a dog. It is a hilarious scene, skewering inner city pretensions and preconceptions, delivered brilliantly by Lee and Swift.

The dog, Puckles, once the companion of a homeless woman, was under Anne’s care until Lil’s decision to liberate him. Negotiations between Lil and Anne conclude successfully, but Puckles has escaped. This event kicks off the main action of the play; three women in search of a dog.

Our third single lady is the much younger Rachel, a recently single Uber delivery driver. Rachel indulges in long, desperate voicemails to her ex, Em, and thereby, we discover Puckles’s sad fate. Rachel is a mess, prone to outbursts. When she bumps into Lil and Anne outside Coles, we learn that there is no love lost between her and Lil, for reasons I won’t spoil, and she is vaguely known to Anne as an upstairs resident of her building.

Despite her protests and with every reason to walk away, Rachel becomes embroiled in the search. To achieve this, Lee gives us a lightning-fast time jump from Coles shopfront to crowded tram, relying on spectacle and humour, instead of motivation grounded in character and situation. Luckily, the audience goes with the flow, thanks to excellent technical staging, and superb direction from Bagryana Popov. I also enjoyed the moment, but the device exposed cracks in the play’s central conceit. While the early dynamic between Anne and Lil sparked an engaging chemistry, as the action progressed, it only became more difficult to understand Rachels’ involvement (or silence as to Puckle’s fate).

The cast do a terrific job with the material, full of terrific, pointed observations on homelessness, multiculturalism, aging and even STIs. But as entertaining as their performances are, moments of genuine connection are thin on the ground. Over the course of the day in which the action takes place, these women remain relative strangers to one another – bound only by a sense of responsibility and/or guilt toward a homeless woman’s dog. The stakes here are low, including the lack of consequences for Rachel when all is revealed. For me, the heightened emotion then demanded in later scenes did not feel earned.

The production overall, however, is excellent. Romanie Harper’s clever sliding panels succeeded on every level; evoking inner city design elements, enabling the tight changes demanded by the script and supporting the action of every scene. The simple yet brilliant representation of the Coles doors deserves special mention. Stage management was generally seamless through the transitions, with one notable exception involving the manhandling of a sofa; actors struggling to move large set pieces is best avoided, especially if it takes them out of character.

Single Ladies is not without its flaws, but it remains a thoroughly entertaining evening of theatre. It runs until 14 March 2012 at Red Stitch.

Images: Jodie Hutchinson