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Review: Millie’s War at Gemco Theatre

Review by Elise D’Amico

Driving along the main street of Emerald on the way to the theatre, clusters of hand-made red poppies and Remembrance banners greeted patrons, in a fitting introduction to the evening. Millie’s War is set in the 1980s against the backdrop of historical events. The play is set in a suburban RSL club, following four RSL members as they plan their annual ANZAC Day march over a series of meetings, whilst beleaguered by feminists wanting to join the end of the parade to commemorate the women who become victims of war. The play was written in 2017, the same year as Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s controversial ANZAC Day social media post ‘Lest we forget’ the offshore detention of asylum seekers, and as the #MeToo movement was gaining traction on social media and giving a voice to sexual assault victims. Both were clearly an inspiration for Dorian Mode, a newspaper and magazine columnist, as he sought to unpack various tensions and conflicts regarding who has the right to march in our sacred parade and more generally, the far reaching cross-generational and gender consequences of war. 

Walking into the intimate theatre, the traditional boxset on the raised stage immediately transported the audience into the slightly run down RSL club rooms, complete with wartime paraphernalia, Australian flags and memorabilia including pieces of uniform, weaponry and vintage photographs. Jo Newport and Kerry Parkinson did an excellent job sourcing these properties, which authentically anchored the play. A large commemorative ANZAC quilt with a border of poppies held pride of place behind the large bar, while round tables covered in slightly mismatched and skewed red velour tablecloths signified the broader bar/bistro area. The combined red of the tablecloths and the poppies were a nice pop of colour against the muted khaki tones of the props and chairs. The passing of time through the play was cleverly marked through changing decorations (and the Bev the barmaid’s headwear), taking the action from Christmas to Easter and then Anzac Day eve.

Costumes by Evie Housham and Molly Koreny were ostensibly from the 1980s, with the female cast members’ garb incorporating some of the patterns and colour palates of the period and the men wearing their good suits and ribbons hinting at Medals of Honour. The Vietnam war veteran’s various Hawaiian shirts and maroon converse sneakers were modern, as were one or two of the mens’ jumpers. The character Millie’s crimped hair was a nice touch, although her septum piercing was also incongruous with the period. Attempts were made at aging the actors playing the older veterans, including some patchy white hair spray, however the use of makeup and more physical mannerisms and stance would have had a greater impact.

Sound and lighting design and operation were provided by Benji Wragg. The use of the tinny RSL voiceover, supplied by the vocal talents of Stevie Swansbra, for the pre-show announcements was clever, and effectively set the soundscape that permeated the play, featuring the Ode of Remembrance, announcements for various raffles and notices/alerts to patrons. Given the references to pokie machines in the script, some extra background noise may have further complemented the action, beyond the amusing rally cries of the local dog grooming franchise who had coopted the boardroom. I thought playing music from the period while the audience were entering the theatre and waiting for the show to start would help ground the play’s time and place. This could then be used again at the end of Act 1, as there was an awkward extended silence when the lights came up for intermission after approximately 40 minutes and the audience weren’t sure if it was a tech issue. I would suggest the play could have run without the intermission, given its length and the fact there was no major set change over the intermission, or if required, perhaps it would be better placed before the third scene, when the room changes to the ‘boardroom’ to alleviate the long changeover (noting the writer attended on opening night, so scene and tech issues are to be expected). The lighting design was simple but effective, culminating in a pivotal monologue being highlighted by a spotlight, and the final scene appropriately muted. 

Christopher Cole relished his role as the RSL Club President, Alf, making full use of his pursed lips, walking stick and particular pronunciation of ‘fool’ (or foo-el). His portrayal of the stoic and stubborn leader who never quite got past the past was reminiscent of someone we are all familiar with. The portrayal of his internal conflict would be enhanced by softening by some points. Faouzi Daghistani played the naïve and affable Morris, the former chef left with the war souvenir of a hearing aid, and his mannerism of touching the aid was lovely. This device provided much of the play’s punchlines through Morris’ mishearing of words and phrases, notably including that Margaret Thatcher was ‘The Ironing Lady’. Rounding out the trio of ‘old school’ veterans was Fraser Baxer as Percy, an arial bomber whose performance was innately gentle and likeable. Mr Baxter’s natural English accent and enthusiasm endeared the character to the audience. The three characters were suitably different and individually defined, but worked to complement each other. 

Matt Phillips as Kevin, the youngest of the group and a PSTD inflicted Vietnam war veteran, was a standout and provided the most well rounded character. Although his character had the crudest lines, and sang various parodies to make Kevin Bloody Wilson proud with his ukelele, he avoided crossing into caricature, and kept the audience onside and empathetic. Mr Phillips maintained the tension of his ever present trauma behind his jokes, with authentic but not overplayed ticks and tremors. 

Jennifer Mettner provided more comic relief as the bar tender Bev, who puts up with these men with a shimmy and a wry smile, between drinking and being regularly ‘on a break’. Bev’s proudest attributes are proclaimed to be her ample bust, and getting her own back on rude men who ‘click’ at her though lacing their drinks with detergent. The character is needed to break up the heaviness of the men, and Ms Mettner remained in character throughout, busying herself with tidying, smoking and providing emotional support for various patrons, only occasionally upstaging the action.

Lucia Kelly’s Dr Rosemary was a formidable opponent to the men committed to honoring their history in the strictly traditional way. Her monologue was a highlight of the production, delivered with halting raw pain and pathos, and made it clear why the character had been so closed and antagonistic throughout her interactions, through her own private war. Even more light and shade in the monologue, and a couple more softer moments earlier in the play would further strengthen the performance.

Millie was played by Sarah Thompson, who should be very proud of her first stage role. Millie was complex character torn between loyalties.. Ms Thompson handled the role with the grace and confidence of a more experienced actor and delivered a potentially triggering monologue with sensitivity.

John Carpenter completed the cast as ‘the punter’ and a Salvation Army collector (who managed to get a donation from every person at the bar!). Again, in his first role trading the boards, he was charismatic, engaging and a joy to watch both in the background and when interrupting the club meeting multiple times. 

The script contained several monologues that took the form of lectures of facts and events stitched together through the character’s personal story, where the opposite approach may left more of an impression. While the facts and different perspectives and battles described were undoubtedly important and interesting, they were sometimes portrayed with little nuance which caused some disconnection from the audience and accordingly slightly missed the mark.

Likewise, the core conflicts and issue were sometimes written as a black and white dichotomy, which undermined the tragedy of each character’s emotional arc and trauma. Emma Newport did a good job with directing through these challenges and encouraging an authenticity in her actors and most of the blocking felt appropriate.  Millie’s War is classed as a comedy, and there were some genuinely funny lines, however the content and concepts do not necessarily translate to the genre.  Slightly tighter delivery, pace and timing may have increased the comedic effect, but ultimately giving due reverence to the heavy themes explored, the play felt somewhat miscategorized. A greater focus on character development and intentional variation in her actor’s delivery would also increase the emotional connection felt by the audience.

In all, I commend Gemco Players for taking a risk on a fairly unknown Australian play and staging it as part of the area’s ANZAC Day commemorations. Also, it was encouraging to see a community theatre committed to developing new talent on and off the stage.

Image Supplied


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