Adelaide Fringe 2012

Shadows of Angels

0 Comments 29 February 2012

Presented byJerky Cat
@ Bakehouse Theatre – Studio
MONDAY 27 February (until March 3)

Shadows of Angels is Melbourne-based writer Fleur Murphy’s first theatre script. The piece aims to break down the stereotypical image of femme fatales as having glamorous lifestyles, and to reflect them more accurately. We don’t have to look far to find examples of Hollywood glamorising criminal women. One example that is close to home is the Underbelly Razor series. The play unfolds as four connecting monologues, each performed by a different actor. The characters are sometimes loosely based on real people, but the piece itself remains fictional.

The set is sparse when you enter the theatre and you can tell that you will get a stripped back show. The lighting is simple and effective. With this stage set-up, and in such an intimate space, there is nowhere to hide. Three of the actors were in place on the stage, and as I took my seat Erin Dewar met my gaze with an ice cold stare. As my face automatically relaxed into a smile hers did not. It was as if she was challenging me to look away before the piece had even begun. Her expression was bored and slightly annoyed, and it started to feel like she was waiting for me to begin not the other way around.

The horror of the hidden closet-room up the narrow stairs and through the sewing room of 777b will be familiar to anyone who has read Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South set in a similar time period. This is where an illegal abortionist practises and where we are taken by the first character we meet, dubbed ‘Good Femme’ in the program and played by Kara Stacey Merrin. The descriptions of the smell of the room and the stains on the bed strongly evoke the desperation one must have felt to seek an answer to their problems there. Good Femme clutches a dress in her hands and tries to distract herself from where she is with talk of its colour and texture, and then of the view she sees of the clear blue sky outside through a window.

We meet ‘Old Femme’ played by Rosemary Johns first through Good Femme’s imitations of her and then we get the real deal herself. She leads another young lady into her closet of horrors and tells her to lay on the bed while she crouches over a tan leather medical case. The tools that Old Femme takes out of her doctor’s bag are appalling and include a wire coat-hanger crudely fashioned into a utensil with a handle of closely twined metal leading to a single but crooked strand of wire that ends in a hook. When Old Femme describes the actions she performs with this tool I’d be surprised if anyone didn’t feel uncomfortable, which is the point. Circumstances lead old femme to visit a pawnbroker that she knows will give her a fair price for some goods she wants to move.

And so, H. Clare Callow is the next performer we meet as ‘Man Femme’. So convincing in her role that if I didn’t already know she was female I don’t think I would have guessed it. It’s not just the costume and the hairstyle, it’s the mannerisms and the way she holds herself on stage that are so believable. Her character is loosely based on a serial murderess who lived her life as a man. As such it would have been easy for her to self-consciously mimic manliness. Instead she embraces the role fully and seems to become rather than imitate this character.

Finally, we come to ‘Pretty Femme’ played by Erin Dewar who, as I haven’t seen her yet, I know must be she of the steely gaze from the beginning. I am expecting her to be good and she doesn’t disappoint –  she is the strongest link in this already strong chain. Having to play a character who is tough but vulnerable, and cover emotions including fear, grief and pain, the impressive writing is met with an equally impressive performance. It could have sunk into caricature but she dazzles and brings the show to a close with style and elicits the most emotional response I’ve felt apart from squeamish (that coat-hanger… shudder).

The subject matter isn’t pleasant and not everyone would enjoy being confronted with issues that we’d like to believe are only of the past but in reality still exist today. Shadows of Angels is largely successful in its aims, however, I did find the reduction of each character to ‘Good’ ‘Old’ ‘Man’ and ‘Pretty’ Femme in the program somewhat narrowing. Luckily, this effect was not reflected in the writing or performances.

Featuring a sharp script from a talented emerging playwright, deft direction and lighting along with convincing performances Shadows of Angels is well worth experiencing if you don’t mind theatre with a bit of bite.

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