Review By Michelle Sutton
Wayside Bride is a brand-new play written by Australian playwright Alana Valentine. The play incorporates her distinctive style of verbatim theatre with a personal connection. Based on true stories gathered from interviews conducted from 2015-2021, the play depicts the experiences of couples who were married at Wayside Chapel by its founder Reverend Ted Noffs from the 1960s onwards in Sydney’s Kings Cross. The show is a sentimental and educational tribute to Ted Noffs and his wife Marg and the ministry and community they built through their inclusive weddings and social outreach services that continue today. It is estimated that Noffs married around 30,000 couples, including marriages of Protestants and Catholics, people of different races and religions, and divorcees. Belvoir St commissioned and developed the play with collaboration from Wayside Chapel, The City of Sydney and Griffin Theatre. Located in Surry Hills in Sydney’s inner city and with a strong commitment to representing stories from its local community, Belvoir St is the perfect theatre to bring this show to life.
Valentine has a personal tie to the story of Wayside Chapel, as her own mother and step-father were married there. As her mother was a divorcee, no traditional church denomination at the time would dare marry her. The unconventional Ted Noffs was not fazed by this, and after a short “pre-wedding chat” was happy to perform the ceremony. Valentine references a photo she has of herself as a little girl at the wedding, clutching a white handbag. Valentine writes herself into the story as the narrator, cheekily referring to the character as a “device” and a way of travelling back in time to listen and learn. Co-directed by Hannah Goodwin and Eamon Flack, Wayside Bride jumps decades and locations, the success of which is greatly aided by the work of costume designer Ella Butler. Brandon McLelland plays the charismatic and persistent Ted Noffs convincingly, although he is outshined in almost every scene by Sacha Horler as his wife Marg, who is to be fair given much more interesting, witty and devastating dialogue to work with. The two actors work well together, with a very moving dynamic between them. The play ultimately is a tribute to the blood, sweat, tears and love of the Noffs and all they sacrificed to be able to make Wayside Chapel the sanctuary it was and remains and both McLelland and Horler convey the passion, frustration and hope in their struggles. Horler also plays the role of Janice, Alana’s mother and excels in this too, presenting a fully formed, funny and vulnerable character. Marco Chiappi is another standout actor in the talented cast. He plays multiple roles flawlessly and adds an element of polish, joy and mischief throughout the whole show, enhancing every scene he is in and bringing out the best in the other actors.
Wayside Bride is a celebration of community. It celebrates radical love and acceptance, people who dare to be different, people who are brave enough to go against the status quo and see their vision through despite the personal consequences. It is a heart-warming tribute to the legacy of Ted Noffs, who answered God’s call to “love your neighbour” literally. The play is very informative and enjoyable, however towards the end of the second act begins to lean towards the style of a school’s educational film or speech presentation with people standing still and reeling off lists of facts. This will not bother people who are already invested in learning about modern history and social movements, however does slightly weaken the strength of the narrative and may start to lose some of the audience.
Wayside Bride makes up half of Belvoir St’s first ever repertory season, alongside Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill. These two plays that are set in very different places at different time periods, utilise the same set, cast and directors. It will be fascinating to see what this brings to the productions, whether the divided attention harms the shows in any way or if it does, as is intended, illuminate the shared themes of social change and revolution in new, unprecedented ways.