Review by Greta Doell
Have you ever seen a play at the Werribee Mansion? Me neither! Apparently that beautiful, albeit creepy abode has theatrical tours through its secret nooks and crannies every week, led by performers of Essence Theatre Productions. Every week except this fortnight that is.
Whilst the spooky theatre tours do intrigue me, for anyone who isn’t in the mood to be spooked, the company’s charming production of The Dress is currently occupying the mansion and I do recommend it.
The Dress is a new play, telling a story of friendship between Mrs Hannah Bryden, an isolated widow, and her passionate, but at times pushy, dressmaker Mr Bertin. Whilst the pair have known and worked with each other for years, they are on the precipice of obscurity. Taking place in 1899, Bertin is struggling to both accept and financially survive the emergence of department stores that make his detailed, personal work unnecessary.
Meanwhile, Hannah’s isolation in her late husband’s mansion leaves her unmotivated to do anything but continue to wear black, three years after his departure. But when a socialite masquerade ball appears in the social calendar, Bertin hatches a plan to launch them both back into the world. They are an enjoyable pair of characters to watch, as they push and support each other through the trials an ever-changing society throws at them.
The setting of the play is immediately immersive, as the audience is led from the luxury foyer of Lancemore Mansion Hotel in Werribee Park, over to the grand entrance of the mansion. It’s an intimate setting, with a row of seats lining each wall of the magnificent hallway. The hallway and large staircase at the end of the hall (that works as the entrance and exit point for Hannah throughout the show) are wonders to take in.
The booming echo of the hallway could have been an acoustic nightmare for the performers, Kevin Hopkins as Bertin and Alaine Beek, the playwright of the show who also plays Hannah. But fortunately it was not a problem, as they performed skillfully with energy and clarity (save for the occasional, forgivable stumble through the fast-paced, witty chiding between their characters.)
As well as this, the grandeur of the echoey space effectively illustrated Bertin and Hannah’s feelings of smallness, and fears of insignificance as the largeness of the mansion loomed around them. Their characters, at times acknowledging this, glided through the space in the most engaging way, giving off optimism and energy, as Bertin and Hannah orchestrated their own new leases on life. Nigel Sutton’s direction of the piece is to thank for the production’s effective use of the space and the way in which the show successfully portrays such a layered friendship between Bertin and Hannah- societal expectations, grief and ambition are just a few of the obstacles Hannah and Bertin have to deal with. But throughout every speed bump, their dynamic never seemed unrealistic, forced or cheesy. It was a brilliant portrayal of genuine vulnerability and mutual respect that was very enjoyable.
The historically accurate grandeur continued into the rest of the production design, with Harry Quinert’s costumes being, of course, an exciting point of focus for the work. I can’t give too much away, but you won’t be disappointed, and it is very clear that Quinert and the Essence team put true passion into this production, which was wonderful to see.
Minimal, simplistic props were used well as the actors moved through the aisle of the audience and their transitions between scenes were punctuated by straightforward instrumental music pieces that brought the show together nicely. I at first feared the music would be too modern and out of place, detracting from all the other efforts of the show to be historically enveloping, but the music got better and better.
There was just the right, small amount of audience participation in the production as well, with Hannah and Bertin being the lovable narrators directly addressing the audiences and bringing them on side. It gave the show a welcoming atmosphere and made it a very enjoyable night at the…well, not theatre. In the mansion hallway, I suppose.
So don’t be scared off by the at first spooky setting. The Dress is a heart-warming historical play that is definitely worth seeing.
It’s on until Saturday 8th October. Don’t miss out.