Red Stitch’s latest offering, This Year’s Ashes, is a funny and touching play that explores and challenges our understanding of grief. Ellen (Rosie Lockhart) lives in a tiny studio flat in “shiny” Sydney, surviving on a diet of vodka and casual sex as she nurses herself through the Ashes – an annual reminder of all she has lost.
Opening with a string of scenes depicting the ever-awkward mornings following a one night stand, we are introduced to Ellen’s world through a relatively normal pattern of behaviour for a single city-dweller. It is her response during and after her encounters with these men that send alarm bells ringing. When her father appears in her flat (wearing her bathrobe, no less), things really get interesting.
The relationship between Ellen and her father Brian (Jeremy Stanford) is at times strained and at other times loving and tender, as they both scramble in their search for their meaning within each other’s lives. Lockhart and Stanford do an impressive job of navigating the ebb and flow of their father/daughter relationship; their exploration of subtext leaves a strange feeling at the end of the play that things are both resolved between them but yet not at all.
Father and daughter bond and argue as Brian tries to teach Ellen about cricket and The Ashes, and the game is used throughout the play as a way to explore what cannot be said between them. While this technique works initially, it eventually becomes tiresome and playwright Jane Brodie could have done with an edit of Brian’s lengthy cricket-explanation monologues.
As Ellen, Lockhart renders a full and interesting woman, all at once tough and childlike; bratty and vulnerable; broken and healing. The contrast between her depression and rare moments of happiness are especially wonderful, and helps to save Ellen from being an unlikeable pain.
Stanford successfully avoids making Brian a mere device for Ellen to push against; he imbues his character with a history and meaning, and is a pleasure to watch. He makes subtle yet clear connections between the cricket metaphor and Brian’s relationship with his daughter, allowing the audience to connect with him as a character and also use him as a way to tap into Ellen’s state of mind.
Ellen’s slew of casual lovers is played by the delightful Daniel Frederiksen, whose comic timing and emotional tenderness make for some of the most engaging moments of the play. His ability to transform into multiple characters within the space of a few short scenes had some people thinking he was more than one person!
The set, designed by Kat Chan, is dominated by a king-sized bed, transformed into different rooms for each scene with a simple shifting of the pillows. As one audience member remarked in a post-show Q&A with the actors and assistant director, the set’s strength lies in its refusal to prescribe exact locations to the audience: it forces us to use our imaginations, which worked well in conjunction with Ellen’s scattered magical thinking.
Lighting by Hartley A Kemp is interesting, utilizing shadows on the white walls to add to the dramatic effect of the scene. There are times, however, when the shadows seem a little misplaced and run the risk of detracting from the action. The intense fluorescent lighting worked into the bed also could have been used more effectively.
With quite a few crucial directorial choices to be made within this piece, Director Tim Roseman has done an admirable job. With the help of his talented cast, he creates a space that is connected to each character’s inner world, yet surreally distanced from the city outside – a world that only starts coming in as Ellen begins to heal.
This Year’s Ashes has its blemishes, but with a stellar cast and an interesting script, Red Stitch has once again delivered a show that is well worth seeing.