BOMBSHELLS, Ensemble Theatre, 24 March-13 April 2013. Photos by Steve Lunam; main pic: Sharon Millerchip (Zoe unt her peplum), right: Tiggy.
WHY GO TO THE THEATRE? It's not just for the entertainment - movies and football do that quite nicely, thank you. Theatre is about the chance and the hope of that rare transformative, life-enhancing experience that makes humans what they can be. It's when a performer and a writer combine alchemically to create the unique magic that can't be achieved anywhere else.
This precious and thrilling alchemy has happened between Sharon Millerchip and Joanna Murray-Smith. The actor and playwright - brought together by director Sandra Bates - are the explosive and the fuse that make Bombshells go off and every evening and every day at the Ensemble brings the house down.
Catching up with Bombshells on a Tuesday night was wonderful. Murray-Smith's playlets-within-a-play are as clever and meaningful now as they were when first staged in 2001. Her writing in Bombshells was compared to Alan Bennett during its London production and it's easy to see why. Since then there's been some updating of local and popular references but otherwise the six women portrayed are the same: there's Meryl, the harassed mother-of-three whose simple wish for coffee is thwarted by the endless demands of her day. She is funny and real but beneath the chipper surface is a frantic woman who's dancing as fast as she can - any mother will recognise her and wince as she laughs.
Tiggy Entwhistle - an earnest grower and breeder of prickly succulents - is a more overt figure of fun as she nervously lectures at her local garden club. Yet she too is disconcerting as her pain becomes apparent in the to and fro of her inadvertent revelation that its her marriage that's cactus. Her diffident middle-aged respectability is at the other end of the social spectrum from young Mary O'Donnell, an obnoxious teenager whose annual triumph in the local talent quest is unexpectedly brought into question by a rival. Somewhere between these two in age and a light year away in expectations and class is Theresa, a thirty-something bogan who's desperate to be a bride at any price. The realisation of her dream turns out to be a perfect example of "be careful what you wish for" - as funny as it is awful.
Possible more heartfelt and realistic is Winsome Webster, a 64-year-old widow whose gently recited account of the pattern of each week is excruciatingly sad in her chirpy determination to keep loneliness and irrelevance at bay. The writing of this character is startling and brave - and it requires similar qualities from the actor. The stunned silence of the audience is proof that both succeed brilliantly. Winsome is a tragic yet triumphant figure.
The final - and finale - is a performance by washed-up but defiant cabaret star Zoe Struders, a quasi-Weimar style chanteuse. Because she's a one-time star, it's necessary for the performer to be able to convince as a singer and cabaret artiste and, of course, Sharon Millerchip does just that. The humour of her interactions with her piano player Lindsay Partridge ("zorry, em I pocking you viz my flepping peplum?" she asks as she scrambles aboard the piano ("it voz zo much easier on a bebby grand") and hapless members of the audience is genuinely funny and - when necessary - she can sing her tassels off.
Best known to Sydney audiences from big musicals such as Phantom of the Opera, Sweet Charity, Chicago, West Side Story and Love Never Dies, in Bombshells Millerchip demonstrates her finesse and intelligence as both a straight and comic actress. Give her the material and she makes it her own. She is hilarious and heartbreaking by turn and with the assistance of Bates' knowing direction, excellent wigs (Teresa Hinton) and wardrobe coordinator (Lissette Endacott) she flits from character to character and is virtually unrecognisable from one to the other.
The season at the Ensemble is selling fast so if you have a chance to catch this play and this performance, you really should. And if Millerchip has the energy reserves (she's on stage for some two hours and never shuts up) it would be wonderful to see the show on the road and delighting much bigger audiences.