Review By Megan Mitchell
There was something very fateful about me seeing Single Ladies at its World Premier at Red Stitch Theatre on Wednesday night. Single Ladies had originally scheduled its run for March last year, but postponed due to Melbourne’s lockdown Without me realising it, the ticket I had forfeited almost a year ago appeared again and I was back sitting in their familiar theatre – and it was well worth the wait.
Overall the theatre experience was not too different; of course there were masks, progressive row-seating reminiscent of aeroplane flights (what are those again?), QR codes, and excellent use of the adjacent outdoor space that patrons could mill about with a glass of wine pre-show.
But in addition to these changes, which have quickly assimilated into our day-to-day lives, was the almost tangible air of anticipation, excitement and relief that simmered amongst the crowd. The air of opening night at the theatre is always electric but it seemed heightened even more than usual after a grateful, excited ‘Welcome to Theatre - covid regulations - please enjoy the show’ etc.
And enjoy the show I did.
Single Ladies a single act show that ran close to an hour, revolving around 3 inner-north locals (played by Caroline Lee, Andrea Swifte, Jem Lai) who team up to try to find Puckle, a lost dog. The beauty of the show was in its simplicity, and the entirely justified confidence that the strength of character, dialogue and relationship would tell enough of a story.
Writer Michelle Lee managed to create a feel-good piece that was anything but trite; it skated over bigger, complex issues with a deft, humorous touch and created such a strong sense of place and identity I almost expected to exit the theatre in Collingwood.
The set was minimal and essential, as the Red Stitch space often dictates, and the moving walls were very effective at creating clear distinctions between location and setting (the automatic sliding door outside Coles was an audience favourite). Overall the timeline was fairly linear, but with enough variation that the piece felt both dynamic and cohesive – it was not one of those theatre pieces you come out convinced you missed an important plot point. You left feeling lighter and satisfied; like after consuming a good meal.
The group dynamics in this piece were well honed and crucial, as the general plot of ‘finding a lost dog’ served as more of an offering that allowed us to explore and get to know each of the women better. Lai had strong character, was able to hold her own against the two more senior actors and complimented the trio very well. Her neurotic, uber-driving Rachel was able to elicit empathy and humour despite her character oscillating between rage, self-flagellation and panic for a lot of the play. Lai brings a great energy to the stage and works very well as part of a group.
Swifte and Lee had a tentative friendship as Anne and Lilike respectively that was both tender and hilarious. Initially the duo appeared to play out the perfect balance of an absurd/straight dynamic, but as the show progressed we saw there was even more complexity and contradiction to their characters.
Lilike’s wacky blue hair and chaotic ensemble obscured a multitude of serious opinions and values and Anne’s neat, even-toned facade revealed a previously hidden life full of adventure and excitement. Lee and Swifte played brilliantly off of one another, their deep understanding of character, comedic timing and an excellent script meant the audience were onside from the first moment, knowing and trusting they were safe in these players’ hands.
One of the most memorable and engaging scenes was surprisingly when all their characters were on a phone; Anne was having some tricky, intimate conversations while Lilike begged Rachel to help her work out emojis. The layering and overlap of narrative was humorous, gave great insight into character and was visually very entertaining. This was also testament to Bagryana Popov’s direction, which I couldn’t fault; I thought it was playful, grounded and used the space very well.
It must have been devastating for the cast, crew and creative team when Single Ladies was postponed last year (and again briefly during the current snap lockdown), but I cannot think of a more fitting performance to welcome Melbourne back to live theatre than a sweet, local story with characters so familiar I feel as though I’ve almost passed them on the Smith Street.