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Review: Sunshine Super Girl at Southbank Theatre

Review by Thomas Gregory

Australia has a bit of a problem with romanticising anyone from here who gains some sort of notice overseas. From alcoholic cricketers to singers from New Zealand, we begin to talk of them as demigods. Hell, we even do it to our murderous criminals.

So it was beautiful to go to the Southbank Theatre to see a romanticised bio-play about someone who might actually deserve the attention. Sunshine Super Girl is a frenetic celebration of the incredible Wiradjuri tennis star Evonne Goolagong Cawley.

This production is genuinely romantic. The story is told as a recitation of a memoir, and Ella Farris, who plays Goolagong, is an engaging storyteller. There are moments of dialogue, but most are expository. Those times we are invited into viewing a dramatic scene are filled with emotion.

The writer and director, Andrea James, is clear that this is not a documentary, but it’s unclear to the audience if we should take the words of Farris as direct quotes of Goolagong. Unfortunately, I could not access Goolagong’s autobiography to know just how much of this was entirely original, and how much some form of verbatim theatre. I have assumed it is simply the former. James does mention a visit with Goolagong while writing the script.

This choice of narrative structure for this play is questionable. Being told a story rather than partaking in the more traditional, voyeuristic forms of theatre keeps the audience at arm’s length. I cannot help but feel the production is telling me I can praise Goolagong but should not try to understand her.

It is no more evident than when the show addresses the more controversial aspects of the story. To give James credit, the play does address the claims of sexual harassment, the racism faced by the tennis star, and her decision to play in the South African tournament by “being made an honourary white”. In most cases, the moment is quickly shrugged off with a joke, while in some, they are presented as one. I admit to speaking here as an anglo-Saxon Australian, but I do not understand why racism might be more acceptable if spoken in Italian.

While these moments may be slightly unsettling in how much they are brushed past, this is not a play to explore such moments. It could be argued that there are too many of those already, and sometimes we just need to celebrate the wins in life. This is the production for celebration, and celebrate it does.

The script is filled with humour, which is accentuated by the performers. From the over-excited child discovering her first tennis ball to the almost-show-stealing introduction of John Newcome, Sunshine Super Girl searches for and finds moments to let us laugh and cheer for this girl who came from nothing.

Twice, the script detours from the story to examine a tangential topic. A scientific talk is given to remind us how incredible it is that any human can hit a tennis ball and that the best in the world must therefore be superhuman. A poem of sorts, which we could title “String”, highlights the spiritual side of tennis and how Goolagong viewed it as a form of meditation when she was at her best. Neither of these scenes needs to be in the play from a narrative standpoint but add so much more depth to the production.

Sunshine Super Girl is a complex physical production. From perfectly choreographed dance numbers to carefully crafted mime, the actors’ control of their bodies reflects the control that made Goolagong a star. While I’m unsure how to feel about seeing the childish “an imagined car trip” in an MTC production, it can be forgiven for being in the same play as some of the most compelling “tennis matches” you will ever see.

Ella Ferris plays the polished-up, fictional version of Evonne Goolagong Cawley, and takes us through the tennis star’s life with ease. Subtle changes in mannerisms and voice are as effective in showing the passing of time as any of the costume changes. While you could tire of hearing a story told by someone else, Ferris is an engaging narrator, and I’m not sure anyone in the audience would have minded sitting there to listen to another hour or two of her stories.

The remaining four cast members arguably have much more challenging roles in the production. From playing multiple main characters, to partaking in many physical feats of choreographed works, these performers are never given a break. You could fall in love with Lincoln Elliot’s Roger Cawley quite quickly, and it says so much of Kirk Page’s talent to be so loved as Larry and despised as Edwards with such a short time between. While it may be a little difficult to stomach Katina Olsen’s portrayal of Margaret Court, the show positions it as the view of Goolagong Cawley at the time, and nothing else. Jax Compton’s performance of Melinda Goolagong produced one of the few tears in my eyes, while her hilarious scenes as John Newcombe threatened to steal the show.

Most importantly, the five performers worked in concert like a finely-tuned machine made of water and love. Olsen was also the ensemble movement director and one of the two choreographers on the show. Sunshine Super Girl took advantage of the strengths of each performer to provide visual spectacles rarely seen outside the ballet or the circus.

As solid as the writing and incredible as the performances, the true stars of Sunshine Super Girl are found back of stage. The stage design of a small tennis court, with audiences seated either side, is effective though challenging to block. The sound design drags us into the world of tennis, from the sound of a ball against corrugated iron to the woosh as it smashes over a net, while also bringing us through time with a selection of pop songs from the ages.

However, when the set is packed up and the actors have moved on to new projects, when MTC has announced a new season of shows, and when some other sports star is being celebrated on stage, We will still talk about Sunshine Super Girl for one particular reason.

The Lighting.

To say the lighting design for this play was the best I’d ever experienced would be to under-emphasise the matter; I’ve yet to view theatre for more than a quarter of a century. However, it suffices to say that no one will walk out of the show without wanting to talk about the incredible work done by Karen Norris.

The set for Sunshine Super Girl is mostly a bare, wooden “tennis court” with faint white lines. It had been advertised that this court would change from red to green to match the courts worldwide, using clever lighting techniques. A nice gimmick, but would barely be worth mentioning.

Wow, did they underplay their hand there! Transforming the stage from the cheap vinyl floor of a country house to a dance floor in London and, yes, the green grass courts of Wimbledon, the stage is a canvas for the art Norris has created. When the lights went out and the lines lit up, there were gasps from nearby audience members, while personally, I will never lose the image of the scene during the already discussed “Strings” diversion.

Sunshine Super Girl is a colourful celebration of an Australian that deserves celebrating. While not everyone will enjoy the script or lack of depth in the story-telling, the choreographed performances and mind-blowing lighting design make this show a not-to-be-missed experience.

Image Supplied

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