Monday June 17, 2024


By Diana Simmonds
March 11 2024

FRAME NARRATIVE, New Ghosts Theatre Company at the Old Fitz, 8-30 March 2024. Photography by Phil Erbacher: above - Megan O'Connell and Charles Upton, below - Madeline Li; below again - Charles Upton and Emily Wright

A story within a story within yet other stories – a frame narrative. Or in this instance, a play within a play within a movie within a play. All within the enduring thrills of possibly the most famous frame story of all time: Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein.

Emily Sheehan’s vision, and director Lucy Clements’ realisation, make for a wildly ambitious and entertaining new play – Frame Narrative. It opens with an excited young journalist-fan girl Elsa (Madeline Li) talking her way into the home of Euro-movie auteur Angelica (Megan O’Connell). The director is unimpressed by the young woman’s tardiness, gushing enthusiasm, and insistence, yet capitulates. The wave of adoration, intimate knowledge, and sheer energy is irresistible.

All is not as it seems, however, and even when one frame/viewpoint after another is revealed as not the final one, still all is not revealed. These revelations are by turns comical and dramatic or both. They are timed to catch the audience unawares and provide frissons of fright (a storm beyond the tall, velvet-draped windows to rival that which was the inspiration for Mary Shelley herself); and snorts of sneaky laughter as lover/actor/theatre director Henrik (Charles Upton) makes pomp and circumstance and Elsa turns into a needy monster.


The auteur theory gets a good workout along the way with Margot (Jennifer Rani) demonstrating that the role of film director will lead either to madness or canonisation beside St Monica (patron saint of patience). At the same time, even as the oblique exploration of Shelley’s masterpiece (who has actually read it? As is asked on more than one occasion) throws up more questions than answers, there are unveilings of contemporary reverberations and puzzles.

Is Elsa just a mouthy Gen-Z bitch set on destroying her idol? Is Angelica a clapped-out has-been who abandoned her child for the pursuit of fame? Or is everything a story anyway and love is an illusion? As emotional and meteorological tempests rage, ebb and flow each character is gradually unwrapped to reveal a 3-D human being. It’s a combination of writing, direction, and fine performances capped by the exceptionally nuanced, credible account of an aging, world-weary once-was-star from Megan O’Connell.

She somehow echoes Barbara – Michael Gow’s heartbreaking actress figure of 1986-7’s Europe as portrayed by an unforgettable Gillian Jones. The parallels are uncanny and electrifying. Even more so if you dig up Harry Kippax’s SMH review of Europe in which he could be referring to Sheehan’s play: “…He is engrossed by human beings, by the differences between them and by the possibilities for their conjunction and communication. He likes people, he makes us like them, he absorbs us…”


You could say that Sheehan also loves her people, particularly their warts and defects. At the same time, Frame Narrative is also flawed – as so often happens with the over-ambitious. But who wouldn’t wish for too much rather than too little ambition? For god’s sake gaze at the stars, not at your navel. The play needs a good trim: at least ten minutes. And there is a sweet irony in “The Playwright” (tremulous, tortured, furious Emma Wright) being told by her mansplaining director (Charles Upton), as she unconsciously caresses her pregnant belly, to lose the last scene!

Played out on a classic set of an elegant wood-paneled study with a pistol and a cut glass decanter which will both be used, sconce-style lamps on the walls that will of course flicker when power is threatened by the thundering storm (design Soham Apte, lighting Kate Baldwin). The action is punctuated by spooky sound effects and mood music (Sam Cheng), while Rita Naidu’s costumes add further signals for the audience.

Frame Narrative is the first production for New Ghosts’ tenure at the Old Fitz and it signals a great start and intentions. Taking into account all the above – it's quintessentially creepy, clever and entertaining and recommended without reservation.



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