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tot mom

Eat your heart out Hinch, THIS is trial by media

tot mom

By Diana Simmonds

TOT MOM, Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, December 23, 2009 to February 7, 2010; may extend. Photos by Lisa Tomasetti

STEVEN SODERBERGH has been the STC's mystery project for 2009. When it was pencilled in to the program nobody knew what he would do, nor with whom. We've waited all year to see what he would come up with and whether it would be worth it. Opening a few days before Christmas, Tot Mom is a perfect Christmas gift for theatregoers as well as fans of true crime and tabloid TV. It's 90 minutes of riveting drama with the twist that every single word uttered by the cast is verbatim: nothing has been made up.

The subject of the title is Casey Anthony, a Florida woman who, at the time of her three-year-old daughter's disappearance, was just 23. Her daughter - the tot so beloved of headline writers - is, or as it transpires, was "little Caylee" whose gruesome skeletal remains were accidentally discovered, trussed up in a black plastic garbage bag, in swampy woodland, less than a mile from the family home. This much we know for sure because that's what's been investigated and reported by police and newspapers. What happens in Tot Mom, however, is astonishing - for an Australian audience - because Casey Anthony doesn't actually stand trial in a real court of law until late January 2010. Tot Mom is actually a trial by media.

Well, trial by Nancy Grace, to be exact. Nancy Grace (a superb, chilling, hilarious Essie Davis) is ego and opinion and a high-powered lawyer's brain on steroids. Check out Nancy Grace on YouTube and it will become instantly apparent that Davis and her collaborators have exaggerated nothing in the style, delivery and monster qualities of the prosecutorial lawyer turned TV inquisitor.

In truth, the play isn't about the tot mom kid killer or child murder, as many of the queasier among us have feared; it's much, much worse than that. It's really the Nancy Grace show blown up onto in-your-face screens that hang above and dominate the Wharf 1 space with Essie Davis's flawlessly made up face and rapacious way with teeth and words. Nancy Grace is really smart; smarter than most of those she skewers - whether friend or foe - and of course, she has the controls. If she doesn't like what you say she simply whacks the off button and you're gone. Primetime CNN is her beat and heaven help you if you rub her up the wrong way.

Like Derryn Hinch, Grace is ostensibly for the victim all the way and to hell with the law and due process. That the law is sometimes an ass we know, but better the ass you know and over which society has some jurisdiction than the vigilante you don't know and who is self-righteously beyond the law and the rest of us. That's the conclusion I reached anyway.

The high-slung screens are surrounded by power cables that drape the stage like hi-tech liana in an evocative tract of car tyre-blighted swamp (set designer Peter England, costumes Tess Schofield, lighting Damien Cooper and soundscape Paul Charlier). In this curiously attractive yet creepy environment the other members of the cast swap seamlessly and continuously through some 40+ roles as reporters, lawyers, talk-back callers and sundry experts. As is so often the case in such events, the victim (of the media trial) is not given the time of day in the hullabaloo while the murder victim, of course, has no voice at all. That so much of the proceedings provoke uneasy laughter is a testament to Soderbergh's ear for the ironic and incongruous; it's also a cultural thing - Americans are not like us and despite celebrity worship and the seeping prevalence of US daytime TV, we are not growing like them. At least I hope not: it could be a boiling frogs moment. Maybe the water is hotter than I realise - remembering the saccharine burbling over "little Pumpkin" - but it doesn't really seem that way in the confines of Wharf 1 as the audience is frozen in dreadful fascination, like rabbits in the spotlight of the Great American Interrogatory.

Once again, continuing his vintage year, Darren Gilshenan is excellent in four sharply drawn performances as various lawyers. Zoe Carides, Peter Kowitz, Wayne Blair, Glenn Hazeldine, Damon Harriman, Genevieve Hegney, Rhys Muldoon and Emma Palmer don't miss a beat or an opportunity to bring life, nuance and depth to fleeting appearances as the puppets who dance to Nancy Grace's perfectly groomed yet barbaric tune. It's a tour de force of ensemble playing that emanates from a rehearsal process unique and new to the actors.

Apparently, Soderbergh blocked the show in the first three days, then from that point on, they ran the show in its entirety every morning until they organically achieved character and meaning. Meanwhile, the afternoons were given over to the making of an improvised movie (that Soderbergh was completing with a small handheld camera in the foyer on opening night). By the time tech week arrived, they had played the piece some 30 times already - and it shows. The actors are a highly accomplished bunch anyway, but the confidence and ease with which they negotiate this tricky format and mosaic of characters is testament to the process and to their skills. Essie Davis, meanwhile, has been locked away in a soundproof booth constructed in the dressing room; an earpiece and small monitors have been her only contact with the audience and cast. It must surely be the weirdest performance environment of her career and she's wonderful. It's good to see her back in a Sydney theatre again, if not actually on it!

Mention has to be made of Jennifer White the production dialect coach. The variety and strength of the mainly Southern voices - and Nancy's extraordinary way with vowels - is a further peculiar pleasure of Tot Mom.

Tot Mom is a play that's for and about our times and is also about theatre of and for our times - and it's beautifully done, absorbing, fast paced and quite unlike anything you'll have seen before. Highly recommended.

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