SYDNEY FESTIVAL 2024: TIDDAS
TIDDAS, Belvoir & Sydney Festival at Upstairs Belvoir, 12-28 January 20254. Photography by Stephen Wilson Barker
When Anita Heiss published her novel Tiddas in 2014, the book launched a genre she tongue-in-cheek dubbed “choc-lit”. Suddenly, mainstream Australian readers – and the (mostly) women of book groups nationwide – were presented with a new phenomenon: middle-class Blak women.
In 2019 Heiss adapted Tiddas for the stage and by 2022 it was in production for commissioning company, Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre, in partnership with Brisbane Festival and Queensland Performing Arts Centre. Popular and critical success followed and it’s now visiting Sydney as part of the city’s 2024 Festival.
Tiddas (meaning sisters – blood or friendship) are five lifelong pals around whom their unique life stories are woven. Simultaneously, more predictable strands of political and historical dogma are threaded into the play. Inevitable though these are (the majority of audiences are White and many still need to know or be reminded) they don’t overpower the women – individuals who are living and striving in a 21st century capital city.
Co-directed by Nadine McDonald-Dowd and Roxane McDonald, the production’s natural juice and electricity were further charged on opening night at Belvoir by the absence with Covid of lead actor Louise Brehmer (Nadine) and her role being taken on, script in hand but powerfully effective anyway, by director McDonald-Dowd. Her co-director is also cast in the play anyway and Roxane McDonald is a cameo presence yet compelling as Grandma and Mum.
Book groups and the women in them are a fascinating combination. It’s not just books, because the choices and attitudes are as important as the volumes themselves. And possibly even more so is the tightly-knit social relationships and group lives that build within these structures. Books, snacks, and wine – lots of wine – are essential to this group as they tease out their ups and downs, hopes, dreams, antagonisms, and sorrows.
Often a book group is the seat of life-changing events – in this one, there are many: a pregnancy, a failed pregnancy, a realisation about sex and love, and a reckoning with ambition and career success and failure. In a light and airily elegant, book-lined living room with a heart-stopping Jacaranda in full bloom (designed by Zoe Rouse, and lit by Jason Glenwright) the monthly gatherings ebb and flow. Each meeting is punctuated by the arrival or brief intervention of the man in the lives of each. Sean Dow is overly bouncy but otherwise convincing as Richard, Asher, Spencer, Craig, and Rory and it’s a tribute to him and Rouse’s choices of costume accessories that it’s easy to know which is which.
The same must be said for the portrayals of Izzy (Lara Croydon), Xanthe (Jade Lomas-Ronan), Veronica (Anna McMahon), and Ellen (Perry Mooney). Each actor has a firm grasp on who she is and why and, as secrets and crises roll in as inexorably as ocean waves, the 90 minutes become ever more absorbing.
Tiddas is a richly universal picture of women’s lives: the best of times and, in a shocking revelation, the worst of times. You might think twice before slinging back the third glass of Pinot after watching it. But at the same time, the deeper joys of women’s love and friendship keep on bubbling to the surface and are irrepressible.
That the group is a mix of Blak and White women is a factor that says much about Heiss’s prescient worldview. Our collective recent past (a reference to the Yes/No vote gets a reaction from the audience similar to suffering a slap in the face) and our collective yearnings for the future are captured in a moving finale.
If your group hasn’t tackled the original 350-page Tiddas, do yourselves a favour and group book to see this one. It’s a night out for tiddas of all ages and stages. Recommended without reservation.