Review by Greta Doell
Making its Australian debut this Fringe season at the Meat Market Stables, Heather by Thomas Eccleshare is a gripping play about prejudice and authorship.
Directed by Gavin Roach, the play follows the story of a reclusive children’s writer, Heather, and the unravelling of dark secrets that follows her children’s book Greta becoming a smash hit. The world becomes fixated on Heather as the fictional world she has created becomes a phenomenon à la Harry Potter. But with her success comes twists that you won’t see coming. You’d think from the marketing of this play that it is a straight-forward drama, but it is so much more thanks to the engrossing depth of Eccleshare’s script that left us laughing, gasping and wide-eyed.
The show is made up of three powerful scenes, each jumping forward to show the consequences of the scene before it. I’m hesitant to reveal any more of the plot due to the stellar plot twist at the end of its first scene, but what I can say is that the two-hander was brilliantly performed by Michelle Perera and Kristina Benton, who switched between multiple roles throughout the play. They were chameleons, seamlessly inhabiting starkly different roles in the most fascinating ways, thanks to the direction of Roach.
I don’t know if having the performers switch roles was in the original script, but from a quick google search I can see that Roach has made a fantastic choice having both roles played by women - not a traditional choice for this production. You’ll have to see the show to fully understand how, but it was a good choice that immersed the audience into the same dilemmas of the characters. It made us question our own prejudices when judging the voice and words of the narrators we were presented with. And there is a huge distinction here- between the voice and the words.
The playwright himself put it best- the play posits the questions of what’s more important: the story or who is telling that story.
Harking back to my Harry Potter reference earlier, it’s very interesting that this relatively new play was written in 2017, prior to the disappointing, transphobic discourse the Harry Potter series was unwillingly thrown into thanks to its author- she-who-must-not-be-named. With the questions this play provokes about the power, identities and trust we ascribe to authors, Heather is very topical and fascinating to dissect in this new context, when Eccleshare couldn’t have known this would happen. I’m so glad I saw it.
Perera and Benton were so engaging, and their pacing through such a rich script was great, eliciting the stunned laughter (the best kind of humour in live theatre if you ask me) and wide eyes through their sharp delivery.
Their performances were complimented by simple yet effective lighting and sound designs that really spoke up most in the third and final scene of the show. For the majority of the show, the sound design was instrumental background music, looped to build the tension of the drama. Some sharpness was added here and there, with sound effects, dramatic blackouts and flashes of colour heightening the drama out of the third scene.
But as I said, this was all quite straight forward, over a basic set of a couple of chairs and a table. The design of the work matched the marketing- more stripped back to make the script and cast the focus. You take from the marketing of the work that it is a straight-forward drama play, but the gripping story was far more exciting than I’d hoped for. Even in the show’s final moments, we were still left piecing things together, slowly coming to realisations with the characters and it gave me goosebumps.
This is a play I picture at the Malthouse one day, with the same talented cast but more opportunity to go even deeper with the production design and direction, probing more at the unravelling of the characters and worlds they have created. Don’t get me wrong, the design really started to speak up in the third and final scene, punctuating the action. And the soundtrack of each scene was chosen well. It just had room for more.
It was a fantastic show that I’d love to see grow and be built upon with every production it has in Australia. It was the kind of show that made me keep turning to my friend, because sharing the experience of seeing it together and exchanging reactions was just too fun.
A huge congrats to the whole team behind this production for giving me such an entertaining and thought-provoking night at the theatre, in a play that isn’t even that long. Go see it.