Review By Lisa Lanzi
I first encountered Gillian Cosgriff some years ago, possibly when she had recently graduated from The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, and was immediately impressed. Now I am simply awestruck by this gifted Melbourne-based artist.
The Adelaide Cabaret Festival furnished Cosgriff with an opportunity to workshop her newest endeavour over five days, then present The Fig Tree - a musical theatre work - as a staged musical reading. And what a sensation it was. The title arose from a line in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: "I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.” Other Plath references are layered throughout the narrative affirming the feminist tenor of the work.
The mid-30s couple at the centre of the story simply cannot agree on whether to bring a baby into their world. Cosgriff is Olivia (Liv) and Jamie Hornsby the ever-positive partner Tom. Liv and Tom decide upon a ‘six sexy weeks’ break in their relationship where they are free to pursue other lovers. This ‘reset’ period with only three simple rules means that Liv moves in with her recently divorced sister (Philippa Lynas) who now lives alone in the family home.
Both Liv and Tom explore some less than satisfying hook ups and these scenes are played out simultaneously. It is only Liv and Tom that we hear as they order drinks and ‘converse’ with various folk they date, resulting in amusing textual crossovers and some pointed innuendo. Eventually Liv meets Elliot (Lachlan Williams), ten years her junior and a former student of Tom’s at the school where they both still teach. Further levels of complexity arise from this deepening platonic bond resulting in a plethora of choice, ethical arguments, and the possibility of an exceptional bond; there are several ‘sliding doors’ moments for Liv to negotiate and the audience were definitely invested, as was I. In fact, the ending was not disclosed and the cast emerged to participate in some lively foyer discussion as to how the story might resolve and who might be ‘team Tom’ or ‘team Elliot’.
Notions of magic, choice, and potential are presented under the guise of the ancient backyard fig tree that both sisters, it turns out, discover at crossroads in their lives. Each bite of an individual fig reveals one possible future. A bite of a different fig will deliver another version, and so on. Most figs picture deliciously attractive prospective outcomes, though some border on the absurd. The sisters squabble, reconcile and reflect on their lives, decisions, and stumbles through text and song and Cosgriff and Lynas grace both characters and the relationship with palpable vitality.
Hilarity rests comfortably beside profoundly moving moments in scenes chosen for the showing. The spoken text is energetic and poetic, funny and philosophical, and the dialogue quick-witted and relatable. The songs however are outstanding, as were the four performers. The distinctive melodies and lyrics sit somewhere in-between musical theatre, pop, jazz, and chatty ballad, the mood of each song perfectly capturing moments in the narrative. These are songs you will want to hear again and the audience certainly appreciated the impact of this one-night gig. The range of the songs is remarkable and the lyrics expressive or prosaic as the mood or subject dictate. Cosgriff is a natural storyteller/poet expressing much through her elegant, ingenious compositions.
All four performers shine vocally and I was astounded by what was achieved in only five days, cemented by an obvious and mutually respectful connection. As interpreters of story and characters, Lynas, Williams, Hornsby and Cosgriff were both moving and convincing. Completing the ensemble with her mellifluous tone and perfectly placed inflection, Virginia Gay appeared as an onstage narrator of sorts, filling gaps in the story with brief explanations of staging or context. Music was provided by Alex Wignall on keys and digital overlay, with pre-recorded arrangements from Jordan White.
The Fig Tree could easily prove a significant contender within the lexicon of original, contemporary Australian musical theatre. I sincerely hope Gillian Cosgriff finds the funding and support needed to bring this production to the main stage and a wider audience. I feel fortunate indeed to have been present for a glimpse of something remarkable.