JUMP FOR JORDAN
JUMP FOR JORDAN, Griffin Theatre Company at the SBW Stables Theatre, 19 February-29 March, Merrigong Theatre, 2-5 April 2014. Photography by Brett Boardman: (above) Doris Younane, Sheridan Harbridge, Camilla Ah Kin and Alice Ansara; right: Sal Sharah and Doris Younane.
This new play by Donna Abela won the 2013 Griffin Playwright's Award and, according to the writer, has since undergone a lot more work. It has been cut, trimmed, polished, re-cut, re-trimmed, re-polished and generally attended to with care and much expertise (Jennifer Medway - dramaturg - with Playwriting Australia and the universities of Sydney and Wollongong also credited). And all that effort has paid off. Jump For Jordan is a joyous, tearful, hilarious and heartfelt experience and yet another success for Griffin and its artistic visionary, Lee Lewis.
The play is complex and multi-layered, it takes place in the past and the present, the single setting represents various locations and the characters are both real and imaginary. As well as a ripping story there are elements of sit-com and farce and all are underpinned by a classic Wog family drama. At the same time, it's also clear and concise and an entirely absorbing 90 minutes that zoom by in frequent flashes of brilliance.
Sophia (Alice Ansara) and Loren (Sheridan Harbridge) are sisters. Their dad Sahir (Sal Sharah) once had a sweet crush on the Italian superstar and merrily quotes her most famous utterance: "Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti". That also obliquely reveals the timeline of when Sahir fled Jordan for Australia. His sister had been murdered while teaching Lebanese kids in a refugee camp outside Amman - and he feared he was next. That he was able to settle in Australia and send for Mara (Doris Younane) two years later also tells you that it was not recently.
Sophia plans to qualify as an archaeologist, meanwhile she works behind the counter at David Jones in the city and isn't living at home; and she is unmarried and the eldest daughter. As if this litany of disgrace is not enough, Mara is up to her ears preparing for the imminent arrival from Jordan of her sister Azza (Camilla Ah Kin) for Loren's wedding.
Across time we learn how Loren has never quite forgiven Sophia for leaving home and Mara's wrath; how Mara has never quite forgiven Sahir for leaving Amman and dragging her to the western 'burbs; how Aunt Azza may be something other than a respectable Jordanian woman - but that may also be in Sophia's imagination; and how Sophia's "flatmate" is not a nice girl named Samira but is actually her lover Sam (Anna Houston). And, of course, Sahir is long dead and still mourning his tenderly cultivated Australian native garden.
Jump For Jordan is family and stories as archaeology - each twist and turn digs up another layer of meaning and family artefacts and reasons to laugh with and be absorbed by these people. It's cleverly written and beautifully directed by Iain Sinclair. His cast is magnificent and it's a particular joy to see Doris Younane back on a Sydney stage. Those with long memories will remember her as the ugly duckling who becomes the swan in Nici Wood's premiere production of Deborah Oswald's Dags. Younane's performance here - some 20 years on - as the radiant young wife and then, the sad, angry, older and uncomprehending widow - is equally commanding and heart-rending. Welcome home!
It's also a treat to have Sal Sharah* back on stage instead of behind the scenes, or wherever he's been lurking. He makes the transition from young and hopeful husband to heart-sore and rueful dad with tenderness and intelligence - great casting. Great casting too of the exceedingly smart Sheridan Harbridge - as the petulant, pouty glamour-puss Loren as she channels a young Gia Carides in her portrayal of entitlement gone wrong.
Camilla Ah Kin has the quick-change task of flipping back and forth between the comic and the everyday. She successfully walks the line between caricature and chilling as "Avenging Azza" and then, as Sophia's loving, non-English speaking aunt. It's at this point the comedy takes another turn. Misunderstanding and misinterpretation (deliberate and otherwise) add yet another layer of laughter and pathos, particularly between Azza and Mara and Loren and Sophia.
As Sophia, this time it's Alice Ansara who is the ugly duckling-turned swan. Hers is an emotional-internal transformation, however. At heart she is still the dutiful daughter and finding it painfully hard to break from her wily mother's manipulations. Pulled in many directions - by her own tentative ambitions, her sister's dictates, her father's gentle hopes, her aunt's assumed expectations and her own sexuality - Sophia is a young woman at a crossroads. Which way she will go - if at all - is central to the play's success: the audience must connect with Sophia. And Ansara is authentic and charming in this deceptively difficult and pivotal role.
Finally, Anna Houston is the only non-Wog on the block - Loren is marrying a nice Italian boy - and as her Sam is also Sophia's foil as well as lover, she is the "straight" character in an otherwise drolly "bent" line-up. It's an unselfish and sweetly compassionate performance.
As well as the exemplary cast, the creatives are also on fire. Pip Runciman's set design is spectacularly imaginative and lit in all its various phases by Nicholas Rayment. The stage morphs from a parched desert-carpet via an open window to a sand dune that symbolises the dream-like past of Jordan and the misery of "new" Australian suburbia - and also down-at-heel city rental living. Nate Edmondson (composer and sound designer) subtly underlines that living under the flight path is noisy, while living as a migrant brings an inner soundscape that can conjure the past and present simultaneously.
Jump For Jordan is a fine new play, given a wonderful production and delivering a great night out. Can't say fairer than that.
*Sal Sharah is married to my colleague Jo Litson and both are my mates of many years. He is also very talented.