Theatre Review: The Women (Sydney Fringe Festival, until 17th September)

A great play and strong visual design set Edgewise Production’s The Women up for success, but inconsistent performances mean it falls just short of its potential.

The Women was written in 1936 by Clare Boothe Luce. Described as a comedy of manners, with dialogue purportedly taken from conversations overheard in Manhattan powder rooms, the story follows a group of wealthy socialites in varying stages of relationships. What makes the play particularly interesting is that it has a large, all-female cast. Although at the centre of much of the action, the men are neither seen nor heard.

The script is witty, snappy and delightfully bitchy. Think Sex and the City in the conservative 1930s. We snicker along with the women as they gossip their way around the value of marriage and its role in their social standing. These are the kind of roles actors love to sink their teeth into – they are well drawn and distinct, but require strong comedic timing and discipline to avoid becoming too melodramatic. To paraphrase another 30s character – Rhett Butler – this play should be staged and often, and by someone who knows how.

thewomen_1The person with the task of staging this particular production is Director Alexander Andrews. It is Andrews’ first time taking the reins of an independent production, and he does well to wrangle the 17 cast members. As well as an abundant cast, the play also calls for a large number of scene changes, with potentially detailed sets – a difficult proposition when operating on a budget in a small space like the Depot Theatre. Andrews’ has cleverly worked around this conundrum, by utilising one of the characters to introduce each scene, speaking the stage directions aloud. This device means the scene can then be played out with a few ornate chairs, an occasional table, and some carefully chosen props.

Andrews’ design skills are also on show, and he utilises a black and white scheme to great effect. Surrounding the stage are oversized magazine covers, with empty frames where the covergirl would normally be placed. The actors engage with the magazine frames throughout the show, at times posing inside the covers (as if they were living photographs) or using them to observe themselves as if in a mirror. The magazine effect is further enhanced by the fact that all the costumes are monochromatic. They have also been well researched, falling straight out of the period.

thewomen_9Unfortunately, where this production falls down is in the performances. Casting for 17 roles (all female) is challenging task, resulting in all the actors not being at the same level of experience. With a play that relies so heavily on its script for laughs and exposition, it is vital that every line is delivered clearly and at sufficient volume. While most of the actors handled the tricky accents well, a good deal of the dialogue was lost to the back wall, or failed to make it past the front row. I’m all for realistic delivery, but not at the expense of vocal projection. The volume issue was not helped by the staging of some scenes, where the main speeches were delivered with the actor’s back to the audience.

However, there are some notable standouts in the cast. Catherine Davies as Mary Haines (around whom much of the action is centred) is confident and genuine. Christie New (Sylvia Fowler) delivers an hilarious performance that has a touch of Hilary Clinton about it. Sian Luxford is excellent as Jane, demonstrating great comic timing and facial expressions, and Kate Rutherford’s Countess De Lage is beautifully rendered and laugh-out-loud funny.

The Women certainly fulfils on the Sydney Fringe Festival vision of celebrating local, independent artists and encouraging new audiences to participate in the arts – the near full house at The Depot Theatre on Wednesday night were extremely appreciative of the opportunity to watch this terrific play. But in terms of reaching the heights of truly great theatre, this production falters at that most crucial step – the performances delivered on the stage by the actors.

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You can catch The Women as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival at The Depot Theatre until 17th September. For tickets, click here.

Photo credit Becky Matthews