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Review: Life in Plastic at The Banquet Room, Festival Centre

Updated: Jun 18

Review by Lisa Lanzi

There is an incredibly moving line in Christie Whelan Browne’s Life in Plastic Cabaret Festival offering that references a crossroad moment in a female’s life: “…when you don’t know what beauty is or isn’t”.  Within a certain period, freedom of expression and the chance to just ‘be’ is delicious and innocent; for a time young girls don’t comprehend the ferocity of the ‘beauty’ industry nor are they subjected to the peccadilloes of fashion and its sometimes insane protocols.  After you traverse into an awareness of societal expectations and experience the weight (no pun intended) of self-loathing, everything changes.

Springing onto the stage in school uniform, trainers, and an orthodontic, lisp-inducing braces headgear get-up, Whelan Browne takes us back to Grade 6, first period horrors, Blue Light Discos, and all those questions a girl might search out answers to in Dolly magazine.  Then to an even earlier time, when the realization about being taller than average meant lurking in the back row for dance class, or worse, the wearing of a full (blue) dinosaur suit instead of cute leopard-printed mini for the recital.  It was anathema to a confident, happy, outgoing ‘look at me’ kind of child and sadly a turning point where self-loathing and body image issues arose.  In this first section, the performer covers a bubbly mix of girly-pop anthems with clever, rich vocal shifts to convey each style:  Aqua’s ‘Barbie Girl’, No Doubt’s ‘Just a Girl’, and Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’.  Whelan Browne’s voice really shone as she tackled Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colours’ and one is reminded just how accomplished this performer is.

An oversized ‘Barbie’ doll imitation with attitude and a lot to say appears as part of the shtick, either held by Whelan Browne or perched on a table.  A number of comic themes centre on the phenomenon of Barbie, including a little about that 2023 film, and that perhaps it might be better to refer to the doll as ‘Babs’ in case Mattel decide to sue.  After a home movie interlude on screens at each side of the stage, featuring none other than our star as that fabled blue dinosaur, and a costume change, Whelan Browne returns to sing ‘Born This Way’.  Now we get to know the newly adult woman, appreciate the battles waged on body hair and her first professional role: a life-size Barbie greeting folks at a Westfield centre being smeared with baby poop after being asked to hold an infant.  Whelan Browne did warn that there would be two ‘poo’ stories… and they are funny.

After the befouled-Barbie role Whelan Browne secured a part in Grease The Arena Spectacular playing Patti Simcox, which launched her award-winning career on stage and screen.  There was brief mention of the highly public ruckus/legal hiccup concerning a particular ‘washed up soap star’ however, wisely, that was not a focus here.  As her career soared, the artist learnt that pain was to be a constant aspect of her life and described a body that now sought to ‘betray her internally’, alongside the ‘external’ image battles so many women deal with.  Being diagnosed with stage 4 endometriosis brought a whole other level of complexity to Whelan Browne’s life, including infertility.

Describing a few doomed relationships then subsequently meeting her now husband, the smart, relatable comic moments flowed plus a love song from Leonardo's Bride - ‘Even When I'm Sleeping’.  The artist possessed great rapport with her audience and bantered easily, responding in the moment to some fun ripostes from various folks.

Treading a fine line between comedy and sorrow, Life in Plastic chronicles a journey punctuated with challenges, not least of all the seemingly impossible opportunity to become a mother.  The heartbreak and costs of IVF became clear through a montage of ‘cha-ching’ sound effects and recorded medical pronouncements - ironic and funny but ultimately very sad.  A reading from Whelan Browne’s ‘maybe baby’ journal takes us from the hoping and wishing stages to the moment, after some tens of pregnancy tests, when she could safely believe she was pregnant.  A reprise of ‘Even When I'm Sleeping’, now referencing her infant son brought us to a touching end.  Until it wasn’t the end.  With one more costume change and a rendition of ‘We Are The Champions’ a triumphant ‘blue dinosaur’ cavorted around the audience while we all cheered for this generous human embracing her every trial and victory, and her body, faults and all.  

Life In Plastic is a generous, truth-telling and heartfelt work that will resonate with many humans, of any gender.  Alongside Christie Whelan Browne’s honest, skilled singing and story-spinning, writer and director Sheridan Harbridge and Composer/Sound Designer Kellie-Anne Kimber have delivered a satisfying, gentle theatrical-come-cabaret work.

Image Supplied


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