On paper alone, The Golden Girls contained unlikely ingredients made for a hit situation comedy. The simple premise was built around the daily lives and loves of four senior citizens (three widows and one divorcee), living under the one palatial roof in greater Miami. What made the show stand out from the pack was that these women weren’t just any group of old ladies. They were vibrant and quick-witted, and their humour was often adult if not a little bawdy.
The Golden Girls also addressed topics that were both pertinent and at the time, highly controversial for prime time commercial television. Some of the more memorable episodes were built around menopause, extra-marital affairs, AIDS awareness, coming out, and gay relationships.
Helmed by a quartet of veteran character actors featuring Bea Arthur (as Dorothy), Betty White (as Rose) Rue McClanahan (as Blanche) and Estelle Getty (as Sophia), the series was an instant ratings success around the world running for seven seasons from 1985 until 1992.
Produced by Matthew Henderson and Neil Gooding, Thank You For Being A Friend is so much more than a loving tribute to The Golden Girls’ 180 classic episodes.
Its specific attention to detail is brilliantly captured by Gooding and Luke Joslin’s co-direction, Thomas Duncan-Watt and Jonathan Worsley’s sharp writing, David Horne’s colourful production design, Rob Sowinski’s lighting design, and the five cast members who front the company.
Running for 90 minutes (including one interval and three hilarious commercial breaks) Duncan-Watt and Worsley have fashioned a new story sprinkled with amusing, contemporary pop cultural references. For hardcore fans in the know, the team also makes light of The Golden Girls’ famous lack of character continuity.
Awash with pastel tones and gaudy wicker furniture, Horne’s expansive two-room set is a gorgeous recreation of the American sitcom’s living room and kitchen. Further, like 2013’s Oprafication at Chapel off Chapel, here, audience members ingeniously become part of a simulated studio taping.
This production is also given a unique twist; Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia, are each played by life-sized puppets (designed by Joey Creative) and hand-held by visible actors.
Recent shows like The Lion King, Warhorse, and Avenue Q also used puppets to capture audience interest and drive the narrative.
In each instance, the puppets’ successful integration into the story, hinged on the actors operating them. Meaning, by using any kind of prop, one’s body must become an extension of it, not the other way around.
Donna Lee (as Sophia), Julia Billington (as Rose), Chrystal De Grussa (as Blanche) and Darren Mapes (as Dorothy) operate the puppets with stylish flair and physical command.
The foursome also imbues the puppets with an expressive understanding of their individual characters. Rose’s child-like naivety, Dorothy’s cutting sarcasm, Sophia’s cunning, and Blanche’s flirtatious sexuality are clear from the outset. De Grussa and Lee in particular, have fun with their respective characters’ trademark vocal inflections.
With perhaps the most difficult part of all, Nigel Turner-Carroll plays Blanche’s son, Jeremiah. Bouncing between that and two secondary roles as well, Turner-Carroll also plays Dorothy’s dance instructor and a pizza delivery boy.
As the only human cast member, his skilled interaction with the puppets maintains the show’s suspension of belief. With that, the overall illusion is never broken.
The Golden Girls has had a long-time cult following with the international gay community. So it seems appropriate that Thank You For Being A Friend is being promoted as one of the highlights of this year’s Melbourne Midsumma Festival.
If you’re looking for an evening filled with hilarious one-liners and 80’s nostalgia, look no further than Thank You For Being A Friend.