Aridhi Anderson is a theatremaker, performer and reviewer based in Melbourne. Check out her work at aridhianderson.com.
An abstract, thought-provoking show
Bells and Whistles by Fiona Stewart is a show about the lifelong impact of being raised by a suicidal parent, the process of female ageing, and the journey towards death. This show is presented by La Mama Theatre from 10-14 October 2018 at Trades Hall, Carlton as part of the Victorian Seniors Festival.
Image by Hare Krishna of The Three Graces By Raphael, Circa 1971.
Lou, Em and Mag are three sisters who have come together to celebrate Lou's 60th birthday. The show is centred around their conversations as they reminisce over shared memories and reflect on how they've arrived at where their lives are at in the present moment. Lou is the primary carer for their elderly mother, who has been unwell for a long time and has been teetering on the verge of death for longer than Lou can bear. Em and Mag have been involved only from a distance, also unable to bear the prolonged misery of her condition.
This show is performed by a talented, age-appropriate cast of Fiona Stewart as Lou, Annie Stanford as Em, and Felicity Soper as Mag. All three performers have significant performance experience and bring their unique strengths to the show, which relies heavily on their performances to convey its messages. The stage is mostly bare, the set consisting of three-step ladders of varying heights, each sister seated upon on one of them at the start of the show. The role of lighting and sound design is also minimalistic, and at times feels underdeveloped. The script, while containing some very substantial stories and graphic descriptions, is structured in an abstract, often nebulous manner. This treatment makes the show feel distinctly like a conversation-starter with regard to its main themes and discussions, rather than the narration of a story with a clear arc, although the latter is not absent.
The three characters in this show, sisters Lou, Em, and Mag, each bring out a different manifestation of the impact of their shared experiences. Lou, for example, has debilitating struggles with mental illness and suicidal tendencies, which she has presumably inherited at least in part through her mother's genes. Her story has many moving moments, in particular when she recounts the occasions on which treatment has been unsuccessful. Her account of one hospital visit where she was attended by a former schoolmate is heart-rending, as she tells of the deep shame she experiences despite receiving professional service and care. Em's main struggles include eating disorders and poor body image, brought about by emotional abuse and impossible standards imposed upon the sisters by their mother. Mag's story is somewhat different - she appears to be the most well-adjusted of the three sisters, exhibiting an adventurous and experimental early life, comfortable with her own body and sexuality, and even pursuing romantic relationships. But when she gets pregnant, she realizes she doesn't want to have the baby, because she doesn't want to "join the mothers' club". She doesn't want to pass on to another generation what she and her sisters have experienced in theirs.
Bells and Whistles is an interesting and abstract show which invites important conversations. It takes a while to properly introduce its characters, lay a foundation and establish audience expectations, but finds its pace in the second half and ends on a strong note. Stewart's ideas, writing, and original musical composition are central to the life of this production and are promising and substantial, even if they could benefit from some tightening and refining. The singing performances of Stewart, Stanford and Soper are delightful, especially in some of their later harmonies, and I personally would have loved for this show to have more of this sort of music.
Bells and Whistles is not your average theatre show. It deals with difficult themes, including graphic descriptions of death-like states, and songs with confronting words about suicide. But it also presents a thought-provoking picture about what life can be like for a demographic that is not frequently represented in the arts, and show sides of their experience that are sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter, sometimes light, sometimes heavy, and mainly just real. This is a show that you attend for exposure to diverse life experiences, and to get involved in the kind of conversations that that invites.