Review by Thomas Gregory
The Australian cultural landscape has a history of celebrating the wrong people from our past. While there is little harm in artwork about sportspeople, and one might even forgive a major theatre company putting on a play about a rich girl and her artist friends, our obsession with the criminal fraternity is disturbing and unhealthy. From Chopper Read to Ned Kelly, our country seems far too fascinated by killers.
It is with a sigh of happy relief, then, that we now get to learn the far-more-uplifting story of Alice Anderson. The owner of the first female-run garage in the southern hemisphere, and avid automobile adventurer, Anderson is someone we should all be excited to know about.
For this reason alone I am grateful to The Shift Theatre, whose Garage Girls has now reached La Mama after being workshopped across country Victoria. That it is a vibrant show full of enthusiasm and activity is only the icing on the cake. While a quite superficial biography is presented, it is more than enough for audience members to want to go home and learn all about this remarkable woman.
Garage Girls was devised by its cast, and while it was inspired by the biography, “A Spanner in the Works” by Loretta Smith, a tonne of further research was put into making the story as historically accurate as possible. Unlike many other plays, this group has also spent time finding ways to develop the story into something highly engaging - it’s a period piece, but it is also presented much like the works of its time.
There’s a touch of vaudeville in the narration of the play, and every character is offered up as larger than life - while the qualities of each person are exaggerated, they rarely feel like a cliche.
Madelaine Nunn is perfect as Alice. Full of obsession and determination, the hints of detachment from relationships and possible shades of mental illness are found under the surface presentation for those audience members paying attention. While the four other actors play a larger supporting cast, they do so like chameleons - rarely could you mistake one character for another. Helen Hopkins is especially worth praising for her role as Alice’s father, JT, and the impossibility of mistaking him for the mechanic, Snell. Candace Miles, Carolyn Bock and Anna Rodway are each incredible, and the entire cast works well together as an ensemble.
The set design for this production is incredible. A triptych of welded iron bars is changed from stage to vehicles to rooms as they are rolled along the stage by the actors, providing a decidedly industrial aesthetic while also easily offering visual cues for each setting.
The score and sound effects, ever-present throughout the production, are of equally high quality. No obvious choices are made, like the sounds of working garages. Rather the music of the era, hints of the wider environment, and mood-setting melodies keep the audience emotionally connected to the events on stage.
If there is a complaint to be made about the production values of the show, it would only lie in the lighting, with monologues sometimes presented in semi-darkness, and some misunderstood use of torches behind the scenes. This is, however, a minor quibble, and for the most part would go un-noticed as you are swept up in the overall joy of the show.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Garage Girls can be found in its role as a superficial celebration of a life that was far more complex. While the production does not shy from mentioning the money troubles facing the garage, the intimidation by competition, or the possibility of Anderson’s death being a suicide, these topics are never explored or even given any serious weight. While part of the play covers the relationship between Alice and the historian, Jessie Webb, the light-hearted style maintained hurts the exploration of what it would be like for a non-heteronormative woman in the early twentieth century. It would be interesting to learn why The Shift Theatre chooses to avoid any change in tone or genre for these more serious scenes while still opting to share darker “flashbacks” to Anderson’s childhood.
Garage Girls is an ambitious play that celebrates a person who has received far too little recognition by the wider Australian public. It’s not a perfect production, but the high energy and enthusiastic performances make any small issues easy to forgive. While it will be a struggle to get a ticket to the all-but-sold-out season at La Mama, I highly recommend attempting to see the play as it tours the state (and hopefully the country) next year.
Image Credit: Darren Gill