****Stars

By Lyn Zelen

 Melbourne Writers’ Theatre recognises forgotten or unknown past and present Australian Sportswomen.

The collection of plays and documentary of events from three outstanding writers and nine innovative actors, dances from a rising Calisthenics star, the reoccurring appearance of a mysterious athlete, a chart-topping singer and precise production crew; educate and enlighten all.

The intricate storytelling and thought-provoking performances are complimented by projections on a floor to ceiling backdrop screen and inspiring voiceover.

To enhance your “in-person” experience at Gasworks Arts Park, beverages, snacks and loads of laughter are permitted in the limited socially-distanced checkerboard or cabaret-style seating.

Gone are the cinemas of yesteryear and news reels snippets of women’s sporting events during the intermission. Here’s to the year 2021, where three celebrated female writers finally have the chance to tell the unsung stories of Australian Sportswomen’s accomplishments. They explore present day achievements and commend those whose amazing performances have helped pave the way for today’s extensive televised coverage of Australian Sportswomen’s events.

Sound and movement speak a thousand words as a mystical backdrop is projected on the enormous screen to introduce Calisthenics soloist Nuj B. Her dynamic yet graceful contortionist choreography does not limit or define her Autism. She spins a surprising likeness in her ‘Spider Dance’ encapsulating the flexible natures of both spiders and women alike—their ability to build a web of supporters to achieve their goals.

The audience is then lulled by a serene projection of blue-white snow-covered mountains peaks and an inspiring narrative alludes to the climb ahead for all athletes and ties in with the story of an astonishing Olympic athlete, her achievements thus far and her future hopes for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

The projection fades into another background for Mazz Ryan’s ‘This Way, That Way, My Way’, where two twenty-something women clad in designer tops and leggings (Cindy Leigh and Isabella Gilbert) jog onto stage to the Kate Bush lyrics “Running up that hill”.

On a Saturday morning in an attempt to run a lap around Albert Park Lake, fatigue soon overcomes them due to Friday night’s clubbing and partying and they’re soon forced to stop to take a breather. Their apparent consumption of alcohol and lack of fitness is aggravated by the sight of a “Yummy Mummy” (Marli van der Bijl) jogging past with her toddler in a “jogger pram”. The younger women gossip and immediately assume the trim and toned thirty-something jogger is trying to hang-on to her youth. In a later instalment, we learn the truth.

The intertwining three stories are connected by common themes and a comical relief appearance of a sixty-something female jogger between scenes.

We leave the 21st century joggers and journey back in time to Adele Shelley’s ‘Swimming Champions’, where two trail blazing swimmers, Fanny Durak and Mina Wylie were unchaperoned in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.

We meet young Emma (Cosima Gilbert), and her Governess Rose (Emma Cox) discussing the sporting aspirations of the swimmers as opposed to what is expected of women in the early 1900s. Emma’s scandalous stories of her heroines’ woollen revealing swim suits provokes humorous bouts of hysteria and fainting spells in her senior charge. Their contradictory views of social standards sport a series of laughter from the audience.

If you love flashbacks scenes and technology, Shelley’s play conveniently sets up the variety of storytelling techniques explored in all three plays, dance and song.

In ‘Swimming Champions’, a spiral projection creates an illusion of ‘time travel’ and young Emma narrates funny ‘horse-race calling’ dialogue of the Olympic Games swimming race, in which both women are awarded gold and silver medals.

The stories switch forward to the year 2018 and the younger joggers discover the ‘Yummy Mummy’ is in fact Irish born and Australian resident, champion marathon runner Sinead Diver. They’re privy to Diver’s complex routines to become a successful athlete, mum, full-time worker as well as the support of her husband.

These revelations are interrupted again by the senior jogger, who waves at the audience, now causing a cacophony of laughter at every appearance and exits.

Writer and Producer Clare Mendes’ play ‘The Shoemaker’s Daughter’ details the life of Betty Wilson, the first Australian Woman Cricketer to bat a century and take ten wickets. She also pays homage to Faith Thomas, the first indigenous Australian woman “to wear a baggy green” and represent Australia internationally.

Betty (Rebecca Quin) appears dressed in the ridiculous standard women’s uniform for the time; a long-sleeved blouse, woollen vest, knee high socks, mid-calf length skirt and ankle boots. Betty lists her batting and bowling attributes to the audience and is quickly overshadowed by Alec Gilbert, playing the convincing Sports News Announcer whose derogative commentary of Betty’s latest match performance includes, “She bats and bowls like a woman.”

Betty pursues a career in sport not the expected marriage like her secretarial-pool colleague (Annie Morris) who flashes her large diamond engagement ring. Again, Betty is supported by female colleagues and her father, who makes her a decent pair of cricket shoes.

All actors execute one-liners with superb timing and the crew walking briskly or jogging on and off stage with props keeps a steady pace between the progressive instalments of each interchanging story—as does the return of the senior jogger—a fabulous fitness advocate Monica Wong, who guides sight-impaired athletes for Achilles Melbourne and recently completed her first marathon.

Those who prefer a straight forward plot, may find the interchanging stories disconcerting, though they are a necessary journey to the surprising ending.

No spoilers here!

Watch out for the return elegant performance from Nuj B as well as a hilarious video of comedian Bobby Macumber singing her catchy song ‘White Line Diva’ asking “Where are the bronzed monuments of Australian Sportswomen?”

The ever-progressive Gasworks Arts Park celebrates 2021 International Women’s Day with the uplifting, informative and triumphant–The Best, The Fairest, the First and by no means The Last of Melbourne Writer’s Theatre inventive productions.

Director & Designer: Elizabeth Walley.  Assistant Director: Mazz Ryan.  Stage Manager: Barbara Toohey

Images: Anna Moloney-Heath

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