Turns | Christine Dunstan Productions

Turns | Christine Dunstan ProductionsPhotos - Lorrie Graham

This is one of those shows for which it is almost impossible to give any kind of reasonable appraisal without discussing the story and, in doing so, “giving it away”. So, as those internet kids say these days: SPOILER WARNING!

Part of what makes it difficult to discuss this play without going into the details is because there is technically not very much plot. Or rather, while we are presented with little in the way of present-day action, the real narrative is ultimately in the backstory spanning three generations, recounted to us verbally. We open with what seems to be an old-timey music hall show performed by a couple of ageing thesps reliving the acts of a bygone era of popular entertainment. So bygone, in fact, one quickly realises that as seasoned as these performers are, this kind of material is from well before even their time.

As the show shifts its focus onto the elderly Marjory Joy (Nancye Hayes), it becomes apparent that there really is something anachronistic and fractured about her act: an incoherent jumble of pantomime, vaudeville and burlesque, all in styles from much earlier in the twentieth century than she could have ever performed in herself. As Marjory speaks to us at length of her former stardom on the stage, we jag off into a series of increasingly confusing episodes with what appear to be her former husband, her doctor, and her son, although her many malapropisms and evident confusion make it readily apparent that some or all of this is happening in her head. We soon realise that we are viewing someone in the throes of dementia.

Things all become clearer in the final act when the perspective shifts to that of her beleaguered son Alistair (Reg Livermore), who has been her carer for many years and, in some ways perhaps, all of his life. Marjory has since died, and Alistair now bitterly shares the full story to us at her wake. It is a rather unsettling tale of jealousy, delusion and resentment across three generations rife with terrible parenting and resentful children. Marjory, we discover, was not a star of the stage at all, but rather as a child had tagged along with her own mother who really was the doyenne of her time. Neglected and envious of all the attention, the then-12-year-old girl “accidentally” killed her mother and the whole incident was hushed up.

Later, upon being abandoned from a young and loveless marriage, Marjory turned inward and began projecting herself into memories of her mother’s sparkling career and romantic exploits, perhaps deluding herself into actually believing them even long before age and severe dementia started to irrevocably blur the lines for her. Alistair became entrapped, abandoning his life entirely to take care of his selfish and truculent mother long into her senescence and his own middle age.

Recounting his years of self-imposed suffering through taking care of his mother and her unmanageable flights of fancy, Alistair is filled with a venomous sense of relief, yet is far from happy. Revealing that he has become a closet cross-dresser using his mother’s clothes and jewellry, Alistair muses about what kind of a tolerant wife he will now need to find for himself, seemingly oblivious to quite how deeply his issues with women have manifested themselves after years of enduring his unhealthy maternal co-dependence.

Written by Livermore himself, this is what should perhaps be described as difficult theatre. Part of the problem, if indeed you wish to view it as a problem, is that the show presents itself as a comedy, an entertaining romp through an all-but-vanished era of showbiz, with a pair of stalwart theatrical luminaries as our guides… but it isn’t. It really isn’t. Anyone expecting this kind of a show is in for quite a shock as they plunge into a disjointed, psychological character study that is ultimately very, very dark, and intensely bitter. Is this false advertising, or is it a cleverly calculated trap? Based on the average age of theatre subscribers, the opening night crowd, and the show’s scheduled season at the Glen Street Theatre in March, one cannot help but think that the demographic this is being sold to is rather likely to find a bleak, nasty tale of parents with severe dementia a bit close to the bone.

If it is indeed a snare to get an unsuspecting audience in their seats and make them ruminate on something confronting, then that is a valid artistic exercise, but it seems quite a gamble that the type of audience they are trying to net and the type of audience who will appreciate this material for what it actually is may have insufficient crossover, and could simply result in alienating too many of the people who will actually attend.

One certainly cannot deny that this is on some levels a very clever piece of work. Once all the different layers of the story are revealed at the end you are left with quite an engrossing tale, provoking both emotionally and intellectually, and one that will likely stay with you long afterwards. The problem, however, is that this effect is mostly apparent only in retrospect – while you’re sitting through it the experience of the very slow reveal is discomfiting, confusing and more than a little boring. For a show that is only ninety minutes long, it drags rather badly in the first half, as even Nancye Hayes’ formidable talents cannot lift us from getting bogged down in the confusion and uncomfortable doldrums of Marjory’s demented anecdotes.

This is a problem compounded by the fact that the script evidently calls for her fragmented little song and dance routines to be quite pathetically shambolic on purpose, as it later becomes evident that these are merely the pale imitations of routines once performed by her mother, the one with real talent. It is a brave endeavour by Hayes to perform so far beneath her own abilities for the sake of character, but unfortunately it doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable and is ultimately rather tedious to watch.

The show livens up a bit, or at least starts to make more sense, when Livermore takes over. It’s certainly no more pleasant to watch – in fact it becomes exponentially more nasty – but at least it becomes easier to engage with. Perhaps the biggest compliment one can give this production is at the same time the most damning criticism: it is an engrossing, unsettling story that will likely stick with you long afterwards, but it is really no picnic to actually sit through at the time.

Lacking the pathos of epic tragedy and instead focussing on a very intimate, intensely psychological exploration of how different generations pass on their neuroses to their offspring only to mutate into new dysfunctions in turn, Turns is a theatrical experiment that does not quite fail, but isn’t much closer to being a rousing success either. While it is a delight to see this pair of theatrical legends proffer some risky new material, it is a shame that the result is no great delight in and of itself. As a story it has an excellent dramatic premise, but as a piece of theatrical execution it can be tough going.

Christine Dunstan Productions
Devised & written by Reg Livermore

Venue: Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre
Dates: 22 February – 12 March, 2011
Times: Tuesday 8pm, Wednesday 2pm & 8pm, Thursday & Friday 8pm, Saturday 2pm & 8pm
Tickets: From $57 (transaction fees may apply)
Bookings: Seymour Centre Box Office (02) 9351 7940 | 136 100 or www.ticketmaster.com.au

ALSO Touring
Visit: turnstheshow.com.au

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