It’s almost there
Presented by: State Theatre Company South Australia
Reviewed: 14 November, 2023
An exhausted first-time mother of a one-month-old baby says to him, “Loving you is like loving a celebrity; it’s entirely one-sided.” This stage adaptation of Anna Goldsworthy’s well-received 2013 memoir of the same name is peppered with many mots juste like this. It’s a reminder of the rich seam of language from which this play was mined; it is also a reminder of its thoughtfulness, intellectual rigor and personal honesty.
Author and playwright Goldsworthy’s pedigree shapes the nature of the piece. Born to two practising GP’s, one of whom (Peter Goldsworthy) is also highly regarded as an author, poet and librettist, she is herself a classical concert pianist, writer, academic, playwright and librettist. She worked with her father Peter on the stage adaptation of his novel Maestro. So there’s medicine, literature and music in the mix already. Goldsworthy’s memoir about the “fake news” surrounding pregnancy, childbirth and early parenthood has been turned into a theatre piece. Billed as “a play with music”, it’s a three-hander which follows its central (un-named) character, played by Erin James, from the first realisations of pregnancy to labour, birth, sleep deprivation, neurotic fears about her baby’s health and safety, and so on. There is more than enough material in this piece for any audience, of whatever age or gender, to recognise and appreciate. The joy of the piece is its universality. That, and the care with which it never alienates or belittles men.
James, as the major protagonist, is superb. She shines throughout, giving us a three-dimensional character who flips between quickfire scenes with the other two actors and lengthy descriptive inner-monologue speeches rich with metaphor and allusion. Her voice is remarkable, both spoken and sung. She has the ability to take authority on stage without changing volume or jumping up and down. Her acting work is consistently clear and focussed. Assisting her are Matt Crook and Kathryn (Kitty) Adams. Crook’s main role is as James’ long-suffering husband Nicholas, but he also plays many bit parts, not least of which is the imperious Lavinia, the Lactation Consultant. (Be very afraid.) Crook is a joy; he brings constant support, consistent clarity and a sense of fun to his range of wacky characters. Nicholas, as performed by Crook, readily gains our sympathy.
The third actor, Kitty Adams, plays a dizzying range of characters with seemingly effortless panache. She is equally at ease playing James’ enthusiastic sister Sash, a saccharine patronising Nurse Fran, Vera the hypnotist and Rupert the dog. However, her finest character work is reserved for James’ octogenarian grandmother, Moggie. With finely-defined physical and vocal work and formidable focus, Adams instantly creates a real grandma; she never strays into caricature.
Designer Simon Greer’s set testifies to his theatrical insight. It begins with a colourful, over-jolly children’s room, in which all proportions are huge compared to the actors… except the easy chair James frequently sits in. By Act 2, when sunny hopes have become hard realities, the whole thing strips back to muted grey and white striped flats and floor. Gavin Norris’ lighting colludes beautifully with these two visions. Greer’s canny creativity gives the actors a powerful, flexible foundation for their narrative journey, never cluttering the stage with unnecessary distractions.
Shannon Rush, as director of this world premiere production, has had a huge amount of work on her plate to realise this project. Rush has firstly worked with a novelist/playwright/librettist (Goldsworthy) turning her memoir into a playscript with some song lyrics. Added to this was the responsibility of incorporating the music of Alan John, whose compositions for theatre, opera, television and film are widely known and highly regarded, into the play. In a completely new show of this complexity, there are myriad elements to balance and evaluate. Rush is to be admired for her ability to juggle the disparate strands of a new work… but the resultant show still needs a bit more workshopping. It could do with an off-Broadway tryout season. This ‘play with music’ does not quite hold together theatrically – yet . It’s on its way… and it’s certainly worth the effort.
Some descriptive monologues could benefit from judicious blue-pencilling. Although the text is poetic and linguistically rich, it challenged even the superb acting skills of Erin James to maintain the impetus of the piece. Alan John plays his music on piano via sound-track. There are six songs in the piece, and the musical style seems to be at odds with the cheerily optimistic first half. Neither do his Act 2 songs allow the emotion of the text to push the neurotic quality of the story forward. Curiously, John’s most theatrically effective song is an Act 2 operatic-level aria exploring James’ neurotic fears relative to a rotating composting toilet. (Don’t ask.) She sings it brilliantly, with excellent articulation and skilful vocal effects. She works very hard indeed to make this number effective.
Musically, all three actors are fine singers. Even though it is Erin James who bears the brunt of the singing (with consistently character-driven sound quality, superb articulation and emotional honesty) , their collaborative work is highly musical. Erin James and Kitty Adams play piano, Matt Crook plays guitar, and James accompanies herself on piano very effectively indeed. It occurs to me that the three actors could well handle the songs by accompanying themselves or each other. This would obviate the sound-track and give the on-stage action more immediacy.
The playscript’s situational, self-deprecating humour elicits responses ranging from guffaws to groans from a very receptive audience. When James’ character, beset by worries, speaks of becoming “a supervisory self, bone old and lizard still”, it reminds us of Goldsworthy’s literary heritage. This play is written about an immensely relatable subject. With some tweaks, it will fulfil its potential. All praise to director Rush, her actors (Erin James, Matt Crook and Kitty Adams) and a fine creative team, for magnificent work on this very worthwhile piece.
Reviewed by Pat H. Wilson
Photo credit: Matt Byrne
Venue: Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
Season: 10th – 25th November, 2023
Duration: 2 hours (including interval)
Tickets: Price: $85:00. (Concession $75:00)