Review by Miranda Michalowski
Millie Pitcher’s dark comedy monologue play, ‘Poles’, is about Cora, a narcissistic, self-destructive 23-year-old who also happens to be a stripper. After successful runs at Melbourne, Adelaide and Edinburgh Fringe Festival, this witty show arrived at the Seymour Centre, where I caught it as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival.
The downstairs space of the Seymour Centre was arranged cabaret-style, adding an intimate feeling to the work. The set design was minimal, with Pitcher using a lounge chair as a set-piece, supported by effective lighting design to create clear transitions between settings.
The story begins with our protagonist Cora, who is working in a strip club and reeling from her breakup with her former best friend, who briefly became her girlfriend and is now her ex. When the two go out to coffee, they get into an argument after the ex implies that Cora pushes people away. Cora insists to the audience that she doesn’t push people away - she’s attractive, so if anything, she attracts people! But we soon learn that our protagonist is a seasoned professional at bullshitting.
The plot follows Cora as she navigates relationships with men, including a ‘spiritual’ DJ nicknamed Kale, and a firefighter named Paul, who treat her unfairly because of their own prejudices towards her work. The play is unflinching in its representation of the up-sides as well as the stigmas and painful aspects of sex work. We also follow Cora as she tries to move out of the sex industry to find alternative employment that is seen as more ‘respectable’ by her family members. We watch Cora as she pushes people away: her ex-girlfriend, her family, even her eccentric housemate Sergio. She is a woman on a rapid downward spiral, and while we love to hear her joke about how everything is falling apart, it’s also pretty hard to watch.
Millie is a skilled performer, and her play features some wonderfully original comic writing. Her performance is directed with flair by Maeve Hook, and the overall emotional arc is satisfying and well-executed. If I had to critique the work, I would say that it draws on voiceovers heavily to indicate the presence of other characters, and I sometimes find that these voiceovers pull me out of the action. But in ‘Poles’ these weren’t too intrusive, and the voiceover acting was compelling.
I also respect that Pitcher has written this piece as someone with lived experience in the sex industry. The work raises prescient questions around the commodification of the body and how we perceive sex workers and their labour. It is a play that demands empathy for the protagonist, and insists she is understood as both a flawed person and one worthy of respect. The voice that shines through in Pitcher’s work is urgent and authentic. I think it’s a voice we should listen to.