Review By Michelle Sutton
Rising to fame in the late 1980s as the larger-than-life Greek character Effie, Mary Coustas is an icon of Australian comedy. A celebrated comedian, actor and writer, she has starred in plays, television shows, films and written a memoir. Decades after winning the Logie for Most Popular Comedy Personality in 1993 Coustas is still touring and playing shows as Effie, so ‘This Is Personal’ marks a significant departure as a one-woman-show where she is appearing as herself.
The Playhouse Theatre at the Sydney Opera House is packed and buzzing with anticipation, with people sharing their favourite memorable Effie moments and their hopes for the show. The crowd is full of expectations for the show, but of what exactly they are not sure. From her entrance Coustas commands the stage with ease, confidence and vulnerability. She has the audience in the palm of her hands where they remain for the 65-minute duration of the one-woman-show. What could be a daunting, ambitious space and show for another performer, feels natural and effortless for Coustas. She retains total command of the crowd as she dips in and out of portrayals of different characters and accents and utilises her physical comedy skills. In one particular slapstick comedy scene she plays about four different members of her family in a hospital room, racing across the stage and disappearing off stage to raucous laughter and applause from the audience. Her portrayals are always warm, loving, intelligent and a tribute to her cherished heritage and culture. She weaves a vivid tapestry of her family, her mother and father the main characters in her story that she keeps coming back to. She speaks of their migration journeys to Australia and the challenges she faced growing up as the child of Greek immigrants, including being relentlessly bullied as a child. She describes her journey to acting and the conversation that took place where she informed her ethnic parents that she would be pursuing a creative path in life. She mentions some highlights as Effie but only in relation to relationships and inspiration, not as passing anecdotes or opportunities to name drop. ‘This Is Personal’ is after all a love letter to her family, her sisterhood, her daughter and to herself. It is not a biographical retelling of her career or her rise to fame and success, but a raw self-reflection of her fears and hopes.
Exceptional direction by Blazey Best allows the one-woman-show to flow seamlessly from comedy to drama to tragedy and to guide Coustas in using the entire space. The stage is almost bare, set only with a white dressing table, landline phone and chair with blazer over it. The lighting design is also simple, with the use of spotlights to enhance emotional moments. This could possibly read as cheesy or cringe-inducing in the hands of a less capable performer, but Coustas is transcendent, grounded and devastatingly open when she puts the grey blazer on to finally introduce the audience to her quietly charismatic, profoundly wise father. A single spotlight shines on her, with darkness across the rest of the theatre. There is awestruck silence, save for the sounds of noses being blown into tissues and people trying to quiet their sobs. It is the emotional peak of an already deeply moving show.
In 2022 Australia where ethnic women are still so rarely given the opportunity to shine, it is as relevant and inspiring as ever to witness the absolute trailblazing creative force of nature that is Mary Coustas. To meet and spend just over an hour with the real person behind the beloved caricature of Effie is an enjoyable and revelatory experience. She is astoundingly open, inviting and generous with the audience. It is a credit to the collaboration of Coustas and director Blazey Best that the one-woman-show feels dynamic and captivating at all times.
‘This Is Personal’ is an absolute masterclass in theatrical storytelling. Mary Coustas is a seasoned pro and it shows in every minute that she knocks it out of the park at the Sydney Opera House. What a joy and a privilege it is to see a woman “of a certain age” absolutely owning her experience, creativity, talent, wisdom and most of all her inherited gift “to find the funny” on the famed Sydney Opera House stage.
Image Credit: Cassandra Hannagan