THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY
THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, Siren Theatre Company and the Seymour Centre at the Reginald Theatre, 16 February-3 March 2017. Photography by Clare Hawley
The Trouble With Harry, first staged in 2014 at Northcote Town Hall as part of the Melbourne Festival, is a typical Lachlan Philpott play in that there is nothing predictable or typical about it. Based on a true character – Harry Crawford – rather than a true story, it is as intriguing as it is mysterious.
Harry was born Eugenia Falleni in Italy and arrived in Sydney in 1898, having dressed and worked as a ship’s boy – not without incident and disaster along the way. S/he was just 23 and he lived and worked around the city until he met Annie Birkett, a widowed shopkeeper of Balmain, and they married in 1913.
Balmain at that time was rough as guts and twice as tricky. Did Annie know what she was getting into and if so, what was it anyway? A lesbian relationship or was Harry a transgender man? The times and their lower working class circumstances mean there is little on record from either, aside from scant photographs confirming their existence. Although in Harry’s case, the images are police mug shots and unkind in the extreme. The muck sheets and tabloids are the sole evidence of their story and they only became involved when Annie was found dead, presumed murdered and Harry’s birth gender was revealed.
Lachlan Philpott has chosen to re-imagine a period of their life together rather than tell any one of the suppositions or conjure up yet another. It shows Harry and Annie as two very ordinary, very human beings in a tough part of a tough town. The shadows and terrace house windows are alive with prying eyes and gossip. Not surprising really, as there was no Channel 9 news, no reality TV nor soapies to entertain and scandalise. The most exciting part of a working man’s day was how many ales could be sculled before the pubs shut their doors at six; and for his wife: whether he arrived home abusive or simply paralytic.
The story is related from the sidelines, Greek chorus fashion, by Woman (Niki Owen) and Man (Thomas Campbell). They speak directly to the audience and their otherness and distance from the action is also signified by their identical costumes: blue chambray shirts, denim jeans and spanking white sneakers. Very 2017 Saturday morning latte Balmain!
Harry and Annie occupy a bare, plank-floored space, raised above the usual level of the Reginald’s playing space and made into a thrust stage by the addition of tiers of bleachers right and left. At the rear are two sets of floor-to-ceiling drapes of what looks like cheese cloth, these are drawn back and forth and used by the actors to denote different states and places with light from behind making shadows and casting silhouettes. The design (Alice Morgan) and lighting (Matt Cox) are simple, effective and variously atmospheric, as is Nate Edmondson's clever sound score – you can almost smell the bad drains, stale beer and sweat and visualise the lurking fears and questions of what was essentially a sepia-lit, fugitive existence.
As Harry and Annie, Jodie Le Vesconte and Jane Phegan are a believable pair. Le Vesconte’s Harry is a twinkling charmer whose grin and dapper mien would have appealed to most women, while Phegan’s reticent but obvious attraction to him is plausible and tender. Also part of the household is Annie’s teenage son, another Harry (Jonas Thomson). He is a naive lad whose pet chook – actually a cockerel as it noisily turns out – is tolerated by Harry even though it has been given the odd name of Lena. And as long as it doesn’t mess with Harry’s prized backyard tomatoes.
All is well – or as well as such a poverty-stricken and uneasy life could be – until the arrival of Josephine Falleni (Bobbie-Jean Henning). She is a pert young woman, in “trouble” and wanting to stay. She is also Harry’s daughter and as well as being a catalyst of change to the tone of the play, her presence suggests that Annie knows Harry’s secret and that Josephine also knows about what is hidden in Harry’s bedside drawer. The tension becomes palpable and one doesn’t have to know any of the versions of the story to sense an ominous dark cloud on the horizon.
In The Trouble with Harry, gossip and history are intertwined and interchanged. Facts are not the modern “alternate facts” i.e. lies, but simply unknown and un-evidenced; and at this distance probably never will be. Frustrating though this might be, Philpott doesn’t take the easy way out – no concoction of possibilities or fancy – and neither does he approach the known story didactically, so it’s left to the audience to speculate, imagine and wonder. And be fascinated: it really is a most extraordinary story which ever way you look at it.
Director Kate Gaul has approached these difficulties intelligently and in the same spirit. The very human presence of the actors relieves what might otherwise be a series of puzzling abstractions; they ground the action in a pungent mixture of warmth, love, anger, suspicion, danger and finally, a kind of redemption.
The poignancy of Harry and Annie’s lives is beautifully realised by Jodie Le Vesconte and Jane Phegan and is in stark contrast to the chipper and vaguely nasty sticky beak-ness of the Chorus pair, Thomas Campbell and Niki Owen. At the other end of the spectrum, Jonas Thomson is a real “boy” on the cusp of innocence and adulthood and his moment of revelatory change – to knowing – is as sad as it is frightening. For her part, Bobbie-Jean Henning captures the combination of snide and scared which is the lot of a young woman who isn’t as smart as she thinks she is – and which will cause calamity.
Programmed by the Seymour Centre and Siren for this year’s Mardi Gras festival, The Trouble With Harry is a very fine production that deserves a wide audience. Recommended.