Review: Christina in the Cupboard – The Depot Theatre, Sydney (Performances until 30 July)

The Depot Theatre’s production of Christina in the Cupboard, by Paul Gilchrist, is bewildering at first, but eventually gets to a thought-provoking point which will have you pondering long into the night.

The play, first performed at the Tap Gallery in 2013, is an exploration of one young woman’s retreat inwards as she struggles to cope with a world she does not understand. She has sealed herself off from the world, her parents and friends (in a cupboard if you are to believe the title), with only her thoughts for company. This is vital information, because if you do not enter the performance space armed with this backstory, you are likely to find much of the play confusing and disjointed.

Nyssa Hamilton
Nyssa Hamilton

Gilchrist, calls the play an ‘experiment in comic magic realism’. But this is perhaps a little misleading, as Christina’s inner musings could actually be viewed as a symptom of depression. The withdrawal from society, although perhaps more extreme in this interpretation, is typical of those struggling with pervasive negative thoughts. So too, are the imagined, circular conversations with those closest to us – judging us with their own voices though the thoughts are ours alone. With this backdrop, it is hard to view the experience as overly funny, although there are definitely humorous moments throughout.

Time in Christina’s world is fluid, shifting almost imperceptibly from present day conversations to remembered interactions. Unfortunately, it is difficult for the audience to comprehend these ‘scene changes’ from the text alone, a factor that may have been helped by alternate lighting states or a physical pointer.

Rachel Williams, Nyssa Hamilton and Emily McGowan
Rachel Williams, Nyssa Hamilton and Emily McGowan

What really lifts the production is David Jeffrey’s exceptional set. Drawing on one of Christina’s early memories, her cupboard manifests as a beach scene, transfigured with the icons of childish play – a blackboard, toy soldiers, a sandbox. It cleverly points to the climax of the play without giving anything away. In fact, in the early scenes, the beach landscape adds to the audience’s bewilderment, while providing a cunning canvas for Christina to draw her place of refuge in the sand.

Throughout the piece, the characters engage with the set as children would, climbing in and out of the wooden pier and crawling on hands and knees in the sand. But, as they move to more adult thoughts, or leave the scene, each character takes a moment to dust off the sand, reminding us that play time is over – a clever piece of action that could easily have been overlooked by a less competent director.

Jeffrey also lends his talents to the role of Robert, Christina’s father. His is the most theatrical of all the performances, and once again you’re left wondering whether similarly heightened characterisations from the other actors may have helped to remove some of the confusion about what is real and what is imagined.

Rachel Williams
Rachel Williams

That said, the role of Christina is played most capably by Emily McGowan. She brings a lovely stillness that contrasts well against the rest of the cast. At times her monologues felt a little disconnected, but given the philosophical nature of the text it is hard to imagine how they could have been delivered more realistically.

Nyssa Hamilton is a convincing Lucinda, an ever present friend who is more than what she seems. Again, this role could have been pushed further into the theatrical realm, but Hamilton brought sufficient taunting qualities to her portrayal. The character who comes across as most realist is Christina’s mother, Gwen, played by Sarah Plummer, who frets and folds her harms in that way that mothers so often do. That said, realism is not necessarily what is needed here.

As Christina’s friends Belinda and Erica, Tasha O’Brien and Lucy Quill are very amusing, doing well to manage the myriad of props and stage business they are given to handle. Both women seemed to settle into the characters over time, but their clowning could have been pushed even further, so as to feel more confrontational. Teale Howie, the third of the friendly trio, is beautifully awkward. His performance as Gabriel is geeky and shy but he delivers his dialogue with expert comic timing.

Tasha O'Brien, Teale Howie and Lucy Quill
Tasha O’Brien, Teale Howie and Lucy Quill

Rachel Williams has perhaps the trickiest role, playing Christina’s sister Anna, who switches regularly between distressed sister and dobbing child. Williams does well, but in this production hers was the hardest character to make sense of (not least because she’s the first to engage with Christina and try to wrestle her from her cupboard).

Director Julie Baz has certainly shown her talent for theatrical interpretation here. As a whole the production is well-thought out, appropriately paced and creatively delivered. Baz is also responsible for costuming, and on the whole the approach works, although I found the constant clacking of the bangles worn by Christina’s young friends extremely distracting. Perhaps the only other change would have been to present Christina as barefoot (the only character who can really ground themselves in the sand).

Unfortunately for Baz, something doesn’t quite gel at the beginning and it seems to take just a bit too long for the audience to come to grips with the style and absence of narrative. As a regular theatre-goer, even I found the piece tough going at the beginning, with a number of perplexing scenes playing out before I settled into the core of the story. While this is in part due to the play itself, and also sort of the point – you’re not meant to know exactly what’s going on immediately or the effect is ruined – I felt that a few more clues could have been thrown to the audience to help them on their way. As mentioned before, this is definitely a production in which a read of the program notes is needed before settling in for the show.

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Christina in the Cupboard is playing at The Depot Theatre, Marrickville until 30 July. To book, visit http://www.thedepottheatre.com/

The reviewer attended opening night on Friday 14 July, 2016.

Photo Credit: Katy Green Loughrey.