Bombshells (Productions Theatre Company)
January 28 – February 4
“Bombshells” begins with the familiar frenzy of mother-of-three Meryl (Julie Berry) taking the audience through her busy day in almost stream-of-consciousness style as she throws herself together in disorganised morning chaos. It is the first in the show’s series of six monologues featuring women on the edge as they try to muddle through life wearied by self-doubt. In the case of the opener, the journey is full of familiar tropes in that clichéd-because-it-is-true way, as Meryl questions everything from supermarket selections to missing socks, and shares the pressure she feels to appreciate the little moments of motherhood.
While it’s a rather one note realisation, the main weakness in this first story comes mostly from text. It seems a strange choice, for example, to have a monologue with so little personalisation and perhaps a wasted opportunity to rather talk to unnamed ‘the baby’ as an organising feature. Also, dialogue of the “I’m vacuuming” type is really not needed when the character is pushing a vacuum cleaner around. We seem to spend a lot of time in Meryl’s experience, (initially and in revisit), however, when we are moved on to her sweet, all-alone and emotionally-fragile Cactophile neighbour Tiggy (Libby Harrison), the Productions Theatre Company play really finds its groove.
With little obvious connection between the six monologues beyond some thematic commonalities, the formulaic scenes appear more as standalone vignettes. Tiggy’s are presented to us through framing device of a speech to the Cacti and Succulents League, which soon ventures into how tending to the plants has provided her a sense of belonging over trying recent times. In Harrison’s capable hands, there is appreciated light and shade to Tiggy’s story. While her accompanying PowerPoint slides and obvious nervousness at speaking in public bring much comedy, there is pathos too as more is revealed about how the hobby has brought her through personal troubles as her veneer slips into crescendoing angry rant about her husband Harry’s betrayal. Alongside its hilarity, however, there is a real depth of meaning to her cacti presentation, full, as it is, of metaphors about how nothing stays the same. This also allows Harrison to show great range within her performance, including a vulnerability in longing for the comfort that comes from long term companionship
Next we move on to enormously talented youngster Mary O’Donnell (Alexis Beebe), aka the Liza Minelli of St Bridget’s, who is preparing for a competition with determination to defeat her nemesis with a meticulously-crafted “Cats” number… until disaster strikes forcing a very funny ‘the show must go on’ last minute substitution song and improvised routine. This is a detailed performance from a supremely talented character actor.
Nuance is also seen in Beebe’s contrasting Act Two scenes as proper, plaid-wearing professional reader Winsome, in which she outlines her resigned-to widows routine and unrealised want for affection with an engaging use of pace, pause and emphasis to authenticate the storytelling. Indeed, there is such realness to the subtle, controlled tones of the character she creates in her talk about the expectations that come with life’s later paths, that we could easily see a play about her alone. This is where Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s skill of acute observations and social satire again shines as, alongside Winsome’s honest explanation of the loneliness that comes from being a one again after so long being a two and want again for a fellow decision maker, there is a layering of judgy quips as to the contradictions of other widows’ behaviours and evocative description of the totally unexpected event that reignites her.
Generally, the move of story to local settings works well. The show’s themes are, after all, universal. However, mentions of North Carindale and Norman Park, jar with the image of a New York receipt and mention of maple leaves. And while it could also be tighter in early execution, Act Two, is a real delight in its presentation also of excited about-to-be-married Theresa’s (Libby Harrison) realisation that perhaps it is not all about the dress after all, in addition to visiting fading American cabaret performer Zoe Struthers (Julie Berry), attempt to strut her stuff on the comeback stage. And Beebe’s Winsome is worth the price of admission alone.
“Bombshells” premiered at The Melbourne Theatre Company in 2001 (with Caroline O’Connor playing all six roles), but it contains no real anchor in time apart from a passing mention of being post 9-11, which suits a work with such universal themes of at its core. Aside from its messages about women’s liberation, the play is also, however, about loneliness, serving as a reminder to reach out to others, regardless of what their facade may suggest, about how they really are travelling.