More than Treats

Keith Gallasch

In Pippa Ellams’ The Carousel, an intense portrayal of agonising sibling co-dependency, two sisters work through a kind of madness towards release without abandoning their love for each other. It’s a torturous, illogical process underlined by scene-switching between pre-adolescence and early adulthood and amplified by the years that separate the older Christa (Tasha O’Brien) and younger Jamie (Alex Francis).

Reasons for their co-dependency are not literally delineated. Most patently it’s the absence of parents in their lives—they’re just angry noises off. There’s no-one to counter the misinformation about changes in the female body which preoccupy them early on or, later, to thwart Christa’s cruel mishandling of her well-intentioned efforts to draw the regressive Jamie out into the world, which the youngster fears “is full of sadness.” Christa is isolated too—her affair with a married man is sexual, not social; she explains, “There are no dates” and she’s heard that “sex is the best kind of self-harm.” Ellams’ pared-back reality renders the girls’ naivety frantically comic when they’re not helplessly combative and their behaviour dangerously surreal when there’s a failure of care, the toxicity of the relationship embodied in a pet spider that is as symbolic as it is apparently dangerous when it does bite.

The volatility of the relationship, inherent in Ellams’ pulsing dialogue and taut scene-making, is a powerful driver of the production, with O’Brien and Francis (and director Hannah Goodwin) excelling in realising the characters’ oscillations between stultified stillness and outbursts of teenage exuberance and hurtful anger. Just when we think they’re doomed, we’re reassured by the palpability of their discrete personalities, eruptions of humour and the energy dedicated to perpetually changing clothes or Jamie’s out of the blue song and dance number for her sister, a sign of incipient release.

Alex Francis, Tasha O’Brien, The Carousel, Treats Showcase, photo courtesy Shopfront

Other moments are anxiety-inducing: Jamie’s nigh psychotic killing of the spider or Christa’s protracted, nervy account of stopping traffic to rescue a turtle stranded on a road, but then abandoning it—driving home the ambivalence at the root of her imposed duty of care for her sister.

The play’s drive towards resolution is painfully suspenseful, but keeping track of the narrative is not always easy: a couple of scenes are confusingly repeated with variations, suggesting short-term alternative outcomes—but in whose head in a play that doesn’t otherwise give one consciousness greater sway than the other? Then there’s the melodramatic stringing out of a convoluted plotline built around the spider bite, utilising device rather than psychology. What’s stayed with me is the sheer immediacy of the writing, acting and direction, the physical and emotional palpability of diminished young lives struggling to achieve some kind of wholeness, each sister fundamentally alone, however bound by ties and a love they don’t understand, until they reach the point where the younger can say, “We have to take care of ourselves now.” This modestly staged but imaginatively large work is the creation of recent University of Wollongong performing arts graduates, guided by Shopfront and revealing their substantial potential.

Another UOW graduate, Kirby Medway, created the first work in the Treats program, Unit, in which the audience, wearing headphones, settle back into their seats or on cushions on the stage floor and listen to an unfolding tale of emotional complications and indifference overtaking an anti-development protest in a Sydney suburb. Again the focus is on young people, with Medway at his best when, and too rarely, sardonic about youthful self-interest; one of the protagonists, not keen on attending the protest, makes excuses (he’ll lower his carbon footprint) but worries that he’ll miss a “life changing” event in which he might play a key role. Another point of view is introduced: the developer who has a penchant for standing naked atop his latest, completed project. Wind sweeps away his clothes but he’s eventually rescued by one of the protesters he’d glimpsed weeping and a kind of bonding ensues.

Listening to Unit, Treats Showcase, photo courtesy Shopfront

A sense of pathos pervades Unit and although these voices reside as if inside our heads, so does a feeling of distance, of dominantly third person narration or even where more personal, of a writerly neatness that represses immediacy and formalises vocal delivery. The writing is able, the performances focused and the sound—wisely eschewing overly literal effects—well designed, save for two passages when it disappears from the headphones and is heard through the theatre speakers, presumably to suggest the outdoor space of the protest, but leaving the un-directed listener confused, sound muffled and the narrative flow interrupted. Unit is an interesting experiment, one of a number of recent works that prioritise sound in the theatre, but Medway needs to now reflect more precisely on the potential dynamics of the sound/stage nexus.

Shopfront Arts Co-op, Treats: Unit, by Kirby Medway, mentor Miles Merill, sound design mentor James Brown, performers Matt Abotomey, Steve Wilson-Alexander, Sarah Meachan, Dave Molloy, Mara Davis; The Carousel, writer Pippa Ellams, director, designer Hannah Goodwin, performers Tasha O’Brien, Alex Francis, sound design Christine Woodhouse, mentor Anne-Louise Sarks; Belvoir Downstairs, Sydney, 21-30 April

Top image credit: Tasha O’Brien, The Carousel, Treats Showcase, photo courtesy Shopfront

10 May 2017
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