Theatre Review: SLUT packs a lot of heart in a little show (Performances until 24th June)

According to the contestants on this year’s series of Masterchef, 30 minutes is not long enough to infuse a dish with the flavour punch the judges are looking for. But it’s more than enough time for the cast and crew of SLUT, on now at the Old Fitz theatre. This whirlwind of a play is defiant, crude, charming and deeply engaging. And it takes just 35 minutes to do its work.

Written by Australian playwright, Patricia Cornelius, SLUT exposes us to the brutality of teenage feminism. Our focus is placed squarely on the character of Lolita, a school girl who grows too quickly into a woman in front of our eyes. The narrative plays out mostly in our minds, with the action largely described by Lolita and her Greek-chorus of girlfriends, all of whom claim to be her bestest friend.

Cornelius delivers Lolita’s story in her typical poetic, rhythmic style, with dialogue directed straight to the audience. Underlying the beauty of the words and composition is a blunt message about female sexuality. Why are some women considered sluts and others saints? Is it women who choose to empower themselves through sex, or is the sexy seductress a role thrust upon them by the male population? And all this in just 35 minutes!

As Lolita, Jessica Keogh gives a nuanced and confident performance. Her delivery is utterly convincing and heartbreakingly honest. Lolita’s nameless posse is comprised of Julia Dray, Bobbie-Jean Henning, Danielle Stamoulos and Maryann Wright. Despite their anonymity, each actor delivers a truly unique rendition of the dialogue. Even in the unison moments – a signature of Cornelius’ – the character of each girl is clear. At several points in the play, the actors stare directly into the eyes of the audience, challenging them to doubt what is being spoken. It’s ballsy and requires supreme conviction, which this cast has in spades.

Director, Erin Taylor, has brought out the necessary physicality in her actors’ performances, without going over the top and turning the piece into a modern dance routine. She shows an in-depth understanding of the themes of the work but lets the text do the bulk of the work. The musical score underpinning the show is well curated and interacts seamlessly with the dialogue, and the lighting design is subtle but hits all the right notes. There are no overly-choreographed scenes or flashy props. But there is also no set. And that’s where the production is let down.

Acting as a kind of curtain raiser for Cross Polinate Productions’ The Village Bike, the SLUT cast and crew must make-do with a ‘borrowed stage’. Taylor has handled this little conundrum very well, integrating the action neatly into the suburban apartment that fills the tiny Old Fitz stage. But theatre is as much about the acting as it is about the design elements, and with one of the primary pieces missing, this story feels a little like it’s had its legs cut out from under it.

At this year’s Sydney Festival, Wesley Enoch hosted a talk with the playwright, cheekily titled Who’s Afraid of Patricia Cornelius?’ in reference to the fact her work is seldom performed on Australia’s main stages. Watching SLUT, you can’t help but feel frustrated that this is the case, because her writing is exquisite. Cornelius’ plays deliver powerful, blunt messages about topics society shies away from, but she does so in a way that forces you to examine your own prejudices. As a playwright, she leaves much to the imagination of the director (there are few, if any, stage directions) and the audience, causing both to ponder later why they themselves made particular assumptions about the characters.

With the right set behind it, this production could really pack a punch. But on a borrowed stage it feels as though it’s holding something back. That said, given Taylor and her superb cast only got one shot at the spotlight last time the show was mounted (back in 2016 for the inaugural WITS Festival Fatale) it is wonderful that many more Sydney theatre-goers have the opportunity to see this play on stage.

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SLUT is playing at the Old Fitz Theatre in Woolloomooloo until 24th June. For tickets, go here.

The reviewer attended opening night, Thursday 15th June.

Photo credit: Clare Hawley