Joanna Murray-Smith has a way of weaving life’s rich tapestry into a consummate collection of character pieces that’s resplendently evident in Bombshells. On the strength of this work alone, I’ve no hesitation in suggesting she may well be our best-ever playwright, living, dead, or anywhere in between.
And in Sharon Millerchip she has an irrepressible force of nature that makes her work look even better (if that’s possible) than it might otherwise. The third spoke in this wheel of fortune is Sandra Bates, who shows just what experience and maturity is worth; in the theatre or anywhere else.
The night before I’d sat through 160 seemingly interminable minutes of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. At 140 minutes, Bombshells isn’t appreciably shorter, but every second is, by contrast, thoroughly absorbing and completely fulfilling. To be crude, it’s like the difference between going to the dentist and having sex.
Murray-Smith awake to the fact that, almost regardless of our station in life, we all wear many hats and women all the moreso, has penned this paean to the multifarious challenges of womanhood, embracing six very different characters. It’s as if she’s taken the great Australian province of suburbia, home to the battlers and working families of political legend, and tipped out its female contents (doing similarly with one or two other corners of the feminine universe) so as to embark on a forensic examination of certain archetypes.
Millerchip, miraculously, performs all the roles. It’s a clear-cut case of “wow, I knew she was good, but I never knew she was this good”. Since, by turns, an ability to sing and dance, as well as act, is implicated, there are precious few who could pull it off. It requires both a sense of the comedic and dramatic. As well a the ability to turn, on a dime, from one to the other; not to mention steeping into the shoes of an entirely new role, with barely a breath-pause, about every 20 minutes. Demanding doesn’t begin to describe it. And yet, not only does Millerchip take it all in her stride, by the end (given the demographics of the Ensemble audience) I was in fear of wigs coming unstuck, hovering in a flock overhead, dentures taking nosedives down the steep aisles and walking frames going AWOL, as the audience, almost as one, sprang spontaneously to its collective feet to appropriately salute the twiggy, diminutive, pixie-faced star. If ever the apophthegm “good things come in small packages” meant anything, Millerchip is the living proof of just how good those packages can be and how much surprise they can hold.
Firstly, the divine Ms M is Meryl, a frantic, self-deprecating mother, racing around her kitchen (with a bench that, as we later learn, conceals a piano) and the neighbourhood. In the old days, she might’ve been told to take up smoking, for her nerves. or have a Bex, a cuppa and a good lie down. Nowadays, of course, she’s expected to be all things to all people; not least living up to her own, nigh-on impossible expectations. The gales of laughter emanating from the audience denote intimate recognition of and familiarity with the running-on-empty wife and mother, struggling to be chief, cook, bottlewasher and all-in domestic goddess, even if she can’t even fulfil her own promise to herself of a coffee.
As tragic as the plight of the overworked, underpaid, stay-at-home mum may be, it’s hard not to be moved to simultaneous guffaws and tears by Tiggy, something of a demure rose, but one whose bloom is now tainted by thorns, born of heartbreak. A cactophile herself, we’re privy to her address of fellow cactus-lovers, as she veers between the desert-dry subject in hand and the more succulent details of her affair with the lover who’s spurned her. Millerchip walks the tightrope between the light-hearted and lachrymal with astonishing finesse. A Cate Blanchett couldn’t do better.
Before we know it, M has reinvented herself as Mary, an Irish youngster with delusions of grandeur and an overdeveloped sense of her own talent. In this jealously competitive guise, though, she’s still likeable, in the inimitable way the Irish can be, I suppose, no matter what. It’s a classic portrait of a tunnel-visioned individual sweating the small stuff and inasmuch, each of us can probably catch a glimpse, either in the mirror, or of someone almost as close, if not both. Not many of us live our lives as large as, say, Mandela would exhort us to do. Our concerns tend to expand to fill the smallest compartments of life. One of the highlights of this vignette is M’s and assistant director Nicole Buffoni’s deliberately lame choreography, utterly at odds with the super-cool of Isaac Hayes’ theme from Shaft.
These aren’t merely costume changes: different accents, backgrounds, mannerisms, carriage and more distinguish each character, with unmistakable definition, from the last.
Theresa is a plain-speaking wog bride, after Effie. She takes us all the way to the altar, at which point she’s still having doubts and calculating how well she’d emerge, financially, from divorce. It’s a hoot.
Arguably the most esoteric scenario is Winsome’s. She’s a stitched-up widow (she can’t emphasise it enough), doomed to a life fraternising with other well-heeled widows, save for her community work, which involves reading books to the blind. Much to her surprise, she ends herself in a compromising position with a young sightless man; a situation which, refreshingly, she embraces. This is brave work, in its head-on grappling with issues of ageing that still remain, on the whole, indefensibly taboo.
The final notes are sounded by Zoe, a composite femme fatale cabaret artiste, a pastiche of Garbo, Dietrich, Garland, et al, who presents her shiniest self, but with psychic rifts yawning open before our very eyes. It’s a show in itself. Or could be.
Bombshells traverses terrain we all know, but with vitality and insight that’s rare. While not absolutely flawless (one or two transitions fall short of seamless), writing, production and performance attain standards not often reached, especially together. It’s one of the must-sees of 2013 and with it, both Murray-Smith and Millerchip deserve to be regarded as icons and institutions of Australian theatre.
The details: Bombshells plays the Ensemble Theatre until April 13. Tickets on the company website.