March 08, 2022

Adelaide Festival – Photographic Memory

The Photo Box
Created and performed by Emma Beech
Vitalstatistix and Brink Productions
Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
March 3. Until March 7.

When left with nothing after bushfires and (as right now) extreme flooding, the first thing Australian families report is their relief that they saved their pets. And the very next thing is that they rescued their photo albums. Family photos are the Dead Sea Scrolls of our domestic history. They reinforce legend, prompt (and sometimes falsify) memory, and, in recording celebrations and milestones, create a narrative that our chaotic consciousness often cannot summon. They are key to our identity. They spark joy and, sometimes, jolt us back to unwelcome recollection.

Emma Beech’s latest solo show is one out of the box. One of nine boxes, in fact, of family snaps which were divvied out by her parents, John and Betty. As Beech drily recalls, they were turning sixty, getting old, and thought it was time to pass them on to their nine children. That was 24 years ago and they are both very much still here.

This production is in part, a fractured, non-chronological saga about a large, sometimes turbulent, family from Barmera in the Riverland, in South Australia. In other ways, it is archetypal and indicative of a particular time, and social and ethnic history, which is a part of last century as much as now. It is full of fun and community. There is a simple plenitude in the lifestyle, but also regret and recrimination – and against the background of a large dark Lake Bonney Barmera and a small regional community with its secrets and lies, tragedies and undeclared misgivings. Not to mention the catastrophic Barmera fish extinction.

Dressed in a burnt orange jacket and matching flared slacks, Beech adjusts six variously shaped suspended screens which will soon feature images from her Kodak trove. She also gestures to Meg Wilson’s set with its low curved platform lit in blue (by the excellent Chris Petridis) denoting the lake shore. There is a dead tree, a hose pipe and bucket.

As she describes the family Beech – the nine siblings (8 in 13 years) and herself the ninth and youngest by some margin – up pop the images. Emma at age one, Emma’s confirmation, Emma as a lesser fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her brother Pete appears- he will be revisited often- and there is a snap, in its heyday, of Beech Hardware and Building Supplies.

As in her previous shows- Homage to Uncertainty and Life is Short and Long– Beech has a droll, deadpan delivery and a dry, often self-deprecating wit, although, at times here, she is also more extroverted. The reminiscences, like the images, are in no apparent order – as if springing to mind, or random selections from a box. Many of the photos have that faded yellow-brown look of processing in the 70s and early 80s, before Fuji colour became the thing. Then, there is winter snow in Denmark, her work in experimental theatre, and mention of a Danish ex-fiance.

Babies feature, including her own triplets, but they are glimpses, non-sequiturs. At the SCABU, the special care baby unit, we are told about the babies – some desperately ill, all tiny and premature. We hear about her life as a resident in the ward, sharing with the other parents, about the mothers and some fathers, their struggles and trauma. Beech is skilful at dispersing fragments, details that stay in our minds, worrying in their brevity and niggling with insufficient explanation.

Much of the evening is like this, as it unfolds into a slideshow of fleeting experiences, half-memories, twinges, regrets and unfinished business. It also discloses private stuff. This is her real family she is talking about. That is her own brother’s recreation room with drum kit, bar stools and Irish pub stained glass windows we see captured on video camera. Beech tells us that during rehearsal she was asked by a fellow creative if she had done an Ethics Check. And then, on cue, as if to supply a family imprimatur, she brings onstage her eldest sister, Jane (“the upcoming matriarch”) and asks her straight if it is OK to talk about Pete’s affair in Adelaide. “Everyone knows about that already” is the mordant reply.

But the real disclosures are Beech’s own. She recounts the Danish ex-fiance and the cultural and emotional collision of his visit to Barmera for the Beech Family Christmas. It is funny and unsparingly frank. As are her times walking and dancing on the wild side with high-risk party animal, Zeke. And then life in triplicate. The children are kept at arm length from us, of course, but we are left in no doubt what a challenge they brought.

In The Photo Box, director Mish Gregor oversees a fascinating and often amusing family portrait, narrated with warmth and charm but also an intriguing detachment. Chris Petridis’s projections are fluid and witty, the video cameos of John and Betty directed by Shalom Almond (and filmed by Helen Carter) are suitably low key and quietly eloquent. Jason Sweeney’s ambient music envelops the stage with his usual flair.

There is still room for some compression and editing from the sometimes over-abundant material here, but Emma Beech has made memorable theatre from tiny moments. The Photo Box needs to go on tour and have a further life. It gives the notion of family entertainment a whole new meaning.

Creative team

Creator & Performer Emma Beech
Director Mish Grigor
Dramaturg Anne Thompson
Film Maker Shalom Almond
Production Designer Meg Wilson
Composer Jason Sweeney
Lighting & Projection Designer Chris Petridis
Costume Designer Renate Henschke 
Choreographer Larissa McGowan
Assistant Director Tim Overton
Welcome to Country Michael Kumatpi Marrutya O’Brien
Producer Jennifer Greer Holmes
Production Manager Emma O’Neill
Stage Manager Françoise Piron


Producer & Director Shalom Almond
Cinematographer Helen Carter
Editor Lauren Wells-Jones
Colourist Sam Matthews

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