Review by Katrina Chan
‘Alison Goes to ALDI for Her Aunt’ may seem self-explanatory, except her aunt is not the nicest woman you will ever meet. She is demanding and toxic. In this play, we follow Alison through her journey of finding revelation and solutions to life. But will she? Written and directed by VCA playwriting graduate Fred Pryce, and produced by Bella Olsson, the team took us to a dark space with its experimental approaches to lighting and costume design.
This is a heavy and ambitious play, primarily because of its absurd plot involving mentally ill Alison, who visits a therapist and doctor to diagnose her illness so that she could terminate her employment at the convenience store, ALDI. As the story unfolds, we witness the broken society's unsympathetic response to her unspoken anxiety. The story dug deep into the psychological burden a person faces under mental conditions like social avoidance, lack of motivation, anxiety, and paranoia. It was uneasy to watch as the director brought us into Alison's spiraling world through different scenarios.
The play features Jeni Bezuidenhout, Josephine Croft, Patrick Dare, Clare Larman and Bella Olsson. They all did a phenomenal job of portraying their character with good pace and ideas. Clare Larman's performance stood out with her portrayal of Alison's Aunt. With her back facing the audience, her refined mask acting, strong physicality and powerful voice work, she successfully brought out the abusive quality of her demonic character. It left us questioning whether Alison's Aunt was still alive or just an imagination. In contrast, although still unsympathetic, Clare's restaurant owner's character is more subtle and down to earth. Her other characters were also very persuasive. Jeni Bezuidenhout portrayed Alison with vulnerability and delicacy. She explored the feelings of being stuck and helpless very well. Seeing her character shift at the end was exciting, yet I wished to see her complex layers in earlier scenes. Bella Olsson had a natural comedic quality and worked well with her construction worker character. Her acting was spontaneous and fun to watch.
Shout out to Samantha Hastings who did a fantastic job in pulling so many costume ideas together in a cohesive way. The overall colour palette was in line with ALDI's brand logo - dark blue, light blue, orange, light orange, yellow, and white. Alison's ALDI plastic skirt juxtaposing her dark blue cardigan was a smart move. It enhanced Alison's out-of-place character. Alison hoped there could be more in this world, yet she felt stuck in this cold reality. There are many quick changes since only four actors were playing so many roles. However, we could identify the characters’ different occupations and social class based on their distinctive costumes.
Accessories came into play - Bella changed from a doctor with a white robe and a stethoscope, into a construction worker with a whistle, yellow gloves and an orange vest. Alison's Aunt did not have any colours in her costume. She wore a grey dress with stockings. I liked that Marco Blasonato’s set matched well with the costumes. For example, the orange desk lamp and light orange chair helped to harmonise the overall picture. With so many scene changes, it might be more efficient and less noisy if the chairs were easier to move around.
I also liked the lighting design by Jasmin Borsovszky. Using one light bulb to light up the room during the transportation scenes was innovative. It was effective with the subway noise, as if we were travelling through the tunnel with Alison. Another great example of Jasmin's contribution to setting the scene is the contrasting red and green lights, which signifies the road work next to the traffic lights. Jasmin's choice was a good balance of abstraction and realism. The sound design was on point, with a mixture of romantic music and sound effects, like subway, keyboard typing, echo phone calls, wind, and footsteps.
Throughout the play, they used projections to change scenes (keeping in mind that the venue had its limit.) They displayed a text description of every scene with a keyboard typing sound, which was very clear and efficient. However, it felt repetitive. During Alison's appointment with the therapist, the screen displayed children's drawings while the therapist talked about Alison's backstory. The crayon drawing was very cartoony, colourful, and innocent. As soon as we saw a picture of her childhood and discovered what she had been through, the drawing revealed gunshots and blood from her trauma. It was jarring and impactful because we also saw that Alison sat like a child underneath the screen. The projections were also effective when they displayed a ticking time bomb in one of the emergency scenes as a metaphor for her torture. There were some technical issues with the projections towards the end of the play. Though some of the audience got distracted, the actors stayed in their characters and continued telling the story because it was an important story to tell - the hardship of a mentally ill person surviving in a broken society.
To conclude this review, for a person who experienced mental health issues, this play felt very realistic, no matter how absurd it may seem. I resonated and sympathised with the character's static and numb situation. However, I wished that some scenes and relationships could have been elaborated further, for example, Alison and Aunt's storyline. It was hard to identify the key message with so many characters present. If you are experiencing mental health problems, or you know someone suffering from the same, make sure you check out this psychologically charged play 'Alison Goes to ALDI for Her Aunt' on Oct 05 - 09 at the Melbourne Fringe Festival.