Review by Isabel Zakharova
Traversing various landscapes and time periods, Women’s Voices, Stories to Stage presents a night of four new short plays exploring women’s stories of independence, struggle, growth and triumph. These are important stories to tell - they’re authentic, relatable and thought-provoking - and producer Margaret Fitzgerald has done a great job of curating a diverse selection of works. However, there were noticeable disparities between the plays in the quality of scripts and performances, leaving me with some mixed impressions.
The first play of the night High Above the Clouds tells the true story of young woman Elizabeth Woolcock, who was hung for the murder of her husband in 1873. After this, we travel to the present day with Sounds and Echoes, exploring a messy reunion between a farmer and his estranged teenage daughter. While both plays had convincing stories and some nice moments of tenderness throughout, what I felt was missing from these performances was a real sense of urgency and conviction. Whether the culprit was opening night jitters or perhaps a limited rehearsal time, the actors’ stage presence felt fairly stiff and overly restrained. With greater rehearsal and workshopping of the characters’ motivations and desires, I think these works could really shine.
The highlight of the first half was Kel Vance’s play, An Apple, directed by Laura Heuston. Exploring the growing epidemic of female homelessness in Australia, the play questions how one might react if they were to recognise a familiar face living on the street. Would they look the other way, or try to make some sort of connection? Annette van Roden shines in the role of Marie - a former teacher who now finds herself without a roof over her head. With strong conviction and emotion, her performance is truly believable, invoking empathy from the audience. The staging of this play was also interesting, with both characters frequently facing the audience rather than each other when speaking, suggesting a visual metaphor of disconnect. While some lines of the script were perhaps a little too ‘on the nose’, van Roden’s powerful performance really brought the story to life. This is a truly contemporary piece.
After the interval is not another set of short plays, but rather, one near full-length work, Mrs Chisholm and the Female Home, written and directed by Margaret Fitzgerald. Set in Sydney in 1841, the play tells the factual story of Caroline Chisholm, an ordinary woman who devoted herself to ensuring that every woman and girl arriving in Australia was given a decent home and appropriate job. It’s an ambitious work, with a very large cast for a performance of this length, but ultimately it works. Fitzgerald has clearly done her research, as the script is full of detail and nuance. Though it’s a serious story, the script is peppered with well-timed moments of humor. And somehow, despite its 1841 setting, the play feels contemporary and relevant.
From the very beginning, the audience is immersed in this world; with convincing costumes, atmospheric sound design (by Paris Bell) and various British accents, a striking sense of place is immediately created. A strength of this production was its believable casting; all the actors seem to feel at home in their roles, and the characters are all complex and three-dimensional. Alannah Robertson takes on the part of Mrs Chisholm with a lovely sense of hopefulness, idealism and sheer determination, and Louisa Williamson and Kelly Legg were particularly strong in their portrayals of newly-arrived women seeking shelter.
The play was weakened to a small degree by its slightly too-long duration and a few too many stage transitions, where the audience was left waiting in the dark while both actors and set pieces moved on and off stage. Despite this, Mrs Chisholm and the Female Home is a successful work; most noteworthy are the warm and powerful friendships between the characters - a testament to the power of female friendship, no matter the era.
The cast and crew of Women’s Voices, Stories to Stage must be commended - it is never an easy task to put on a play, let alone a whole set of plays. While there were certainly some flaws in both script and performance, I was impressed by the variety of stories represented. And what I appreciated most of all was the fact that I left the theatre having learned something new.
Women’s Voices, Stories to Stage plays at Chippen Street Theatre until 23 July.