September 01, 1997

Sea Change

The Mourning After
by Verity Laughton

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Belle Doyle may be by herself on the beach on Christmas Day but she is not alone. Verity Laughton’s comic weepie The Mourning After, is a monodrama with a cast of dozens. The situation is emotionally raw. Belle’s husband Harry has unexpectedly gone blue and died on the morning of Christmas Eve. In fact he has died in the middle of an argument over whether Belle, a song and dance hoofer from the Tivoli days, will return to the stage, after thirty five years, to play the role of Ned Kelly’s mother in a new Australian musical.

The death of her husband, a minor variety performer turned bank clerk, tilts Belle back into her own life as she reflects on the series of sacrifices and compromises that constitute her adult life. She gave up her role in My Fair Lady to have her first child and even in late middle age she has been hiding from Harry old theatre programmes, and other traces of her past successes. She can only manage the lead in radio soapie, Berenice Beleaguered , because it is taped in the daytime and Harry’s employers at the bank think its good for business.

The horrible kids are not much better. Doting mother that she is, Belle endures the strident progress of Yvette (undergrad socialist and then lesbian mother on the IV programme) and Magnus (handsome, conceited and husband-manager to Luella, a pop singer with a Kylie-like demographic.) On her day of grief they are at opposite ends of both the country and the known world. And- for what can only be dramatic purposes- this exceptionally personable woman is without any other condolent overtures either.

In the touring Playbox production, Nancye Hayes brings her own popular stage personality to Belle Doyle. It is a zany, good-natured performance of a zany, good-natured character. Hayes is breezy with the comedy and appropriately soggy in her grief. But she has her work cut out for her with Laughton’s text and Trina Parker’s spartan design.

Act One is on the beach, represented by a semi-literal canvas backcloth of blue sea and plage, while a low dias provides enough dune for Belle to set up her picnic bits and bobs and- deja vu in the Festival Centre- apostrophise the seagulls. Hayes has a lot of exposition to cover which, with Tony Sheldon’s uncertain direction and some hob-footed lighting cues, makes for an occasionally jittery ride.

Monodramas are by nature discursive and we think of some which glory in their indirection- Hibberd’s Stretch, Blair’s Christian Brothers and Barry Humphries’ various savage solipsisms. Belle also has a lot of ground to cover- chronologically and emotionally. And there are visits to Big Questions – republicanism, feminist issues, gender expectations and generational conflict. Too many really. Which is a pity because the central idea- reminiscences of a woman coming of age in the fifties is a terrific one. The social and cultural vortex is a rich one but the narrative is overloaded with everything from impressions of Roy Rene to laboriously detailed imaginary dialogue with Her Maj, Queen of Australia, and awkward evocations of Luella, Queen of Pop.

Oddly, the theatrical detail is sparse. For one so steeped in the entertainment biz, we don’t get from Belle much fine shading either of the Tivoli scene or Hector Crawford’s radio empire. I would have traded some of the more arch chunks of the family saga for more about young Belle. And if there are going to be songs, to have just the one at end is too much too late. Particularly with a performer as able as Nancye Hayes in the role, more songs might have anchored the emotion and taken the insistence off the comedy.

The Mourning After is a likeable work presented by one of this country’s most loved entertainers. It will find a warm reception among those in the audience who recognise and share the memories and frustrations for Australian women in the mid-century. But Verity Laughton might have trusted her instincts more. The heart of this play is more modest than the sweep of themes suggests and its pleasure is not in the satirically garish portraits of Generation X but in the illumination of the nearly obliterated traces of a dutiful and not-quite fortunate life.

The Adelaide Review, September, 1997.

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