TINY, BEAUTIFUL THINGS
TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, Queensland Theatre and Belvoir at Belvoir St Theatre Upstairs, 3 February- 24 March 2024. Photography by Brett Boardman: above l-r - Angela Nica Sullen, Nic Prior, Stephen Geronimos, and Mandy McElhinney; below - Angela Nica Sullen; below again - Nic Prior
In Wild, her first and bestselling book (then Reese Witherspoon hit movie), Cheryl Strayed wrote, “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told.” Not that she became instant Superwoman – there are 11 mentions of rattlesnakes in Wild and all involve elevated heart rate. But that brave, simple idea also infuses Tiny Beautiful Things, her third book and, through screenwriter and adapter Nia Vardalos, a TV show – and a successful off-Broadway theatre work.
Its Australian premiere in Brisbane in 2023, was programmed and directed, aptly enough, by Queensland Theatre boss Lee Lewis. She knows a groundbreaking piece when she sees it (Prima Facie, anyone?) and Eamon Flack likewise: he jumped on Tiny Beautiful Things for Belvoir and it’s now a highlight of this Sydney summer.
The book-to-stage transformation is epistolary rather than a play, and Lewis and her cast and creative team fashion an absorbing, funny, and ultimately moving 90 minutes of humanity at its worst and best. Under the pseudonym “Sugar”, Strayed took over the advice column of online site The Rumpus. She treated the role of Agony Aunt as she had approached Wild’s 1700+ kilometer hike along the Pacific Crest Trail as a second-go divorcee, single mother, and sometime heroin user burdened by profound unhappiness, an oversized backpack, and $US85,000 in credit card debt. She jumped right in.
Mandy McElhinney does the same – starting by treading on a bit of Lego in her kid-messy-exhausted-mother home – and continues on a verbal journey in which she answers “Dear Sugar” emails. She hasn’t a clue how to but goes at it with the instinctive honesty and innate wisdom of her life experience. (The book’s subtitle is “advice on love and life from someone who’s been there”.) The letter writers sign as per their travails: Sexy Santa, WTF, Too Much, Thief, Crushed, Confused, and so on. These bewildered – yet often hilarious when not heartbreaking – missives, are related through multiple roles by Stephen Geronimos, Nic Prior, and Angela Nica Sullen.
Unlike proper Agony Aunts, who maintain cool objectivity, and imply suitably lofty qualifications, Sugar/Cheryl has only herself to give. “Compassion isn’t about solutions. It’s about giving all the love that you’ve got.” (Picked as a favourite quote by 6000+ Kindle readers) It means she answers the splenetic WTF by telling him about having to jerk off her grandfather at ages four and five.
Director Lee Lewis gives what could easily have been a static piece a mesmeric and logical rhythm of human movement and not-quite-interaction as the four actors move through different positions and roles with unaffected grace. Not until the end is there a fleeting contact between Sugar and a correspondent. Until then, they tell their life letters and she responds, all the while gradually getting through her chores and tidying the house – and the messes of her life and theirs.
The production is beguiling and compelling on a set that’s at once realistic and sketched (Simone Romaniuk). It’s lit in a similarly effective fashion (Bernie Tan-Hayes), with a minimal and persuasively apposite soundscape (Brady Watkins).
The performances are equally convincing as Stephen Geronimos, Nic Prior and Angela Nica Sullen maintain a firm emotional grip and choreographed discipline around their many characters. Each gives a wondrous Mandy McElhinney the support and space she needs to fully inhabit the stage and her role. She starts out with world-weary insouciance, but as she digs deeper into her life and memories, the sources of hurt and eventual, unplanned redemption become apparent. That’s the glowing outcome of this unexpectedly affecting production: startling wisdom, humanity, laughter, compassion – and redemption. Recommended without reservation.