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If there is a theatrical form more gruelling for the actor than solo performance, it is solo comic performance. From the physical marathon involved in carrying a significant length of performance time alone through to the esoteric wrestling match with theatrical convention, the one-person show is already a daunting obstacle-course; add the tightrope of comic timing to the list of feats, and the theatre-goer will either witness an actor working at a peak seldom rivalled in other art-forms, or wince their way through an embarrassment.
Fortunately for both the Queensland Theatre Company and Brisbane theatre-lovers, the wisdom of new artistic director Wesley Enoch's choices has ensured that Joanna Murray-Smith's Bombshells, now showing in the Cremorne Theatre at Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), is an experience which sits squarely in the former category. In casting Christen O'Leary as the vehicle through which to animate a text by one of Australia's wittiest and most insightful playwrights, Enoch has wedded a work rich in compelling images and comic subtleties to an actor possessing both the experience and the energy to unmask them. For an engaging ninety minutes comprising six separate character-based vignettes, Bombshells dances with gusto and grace through the borderlands of contemporary Western femininity—along lines between fantasy and reality, pleasure and pain, private and public which today's woman might cross and re-cross many times daily, and yet which often remain unexamined and unarticulated in the helter-skelter of life in the new millennium.
The adventure begins with a whirlwind tour through the hall of disapproving mirrors which is a standard day in the life of sleep-deprived and self-flagellating mother Meryl. This mime-and-slapstick-saturated immersion in the trials and insecurities of modern motherhood is frantically funny, but also introduces the first of many poignant moments to punctuate and enrich the evening's laughter. When Meryl kneels with her head on the floor in a desperate attempt to snatch some baby-appreciation time from the eye of the tornado, every parent in the audience kneels there with her, marvelling anew at how quickly such precious moments pass when the days which contain them sometimes seem so interminable.
No sooner have the guffaws died away in the wake of this remarkable ride than Meryl morphs into Tiggy—self-confessed "cactophile" and stalwart of the North Hetherton Cactus and Succulent League. "Why cacti?" Tiggy rhetorically demands, before emerging from behind the twin protective barriers of British reserve and history's worst-ever slide-show to explain in excruciatingly-public fashion exactly why these "remarkable plants" are in every way superior companions to balding, overweight, middle-aged philanderers named Harry. While Tiggy's accent sometimes strays from a comically-broad Lillipudlian into other English regions—and perhaps once or twice across the Irish Sea altogether—O'Leary's exquisite timing never falters as Tiggy lurches hilariously between reluctance and raw self-revelation, on a see-saw whose fulcrum is nevertheless an irreducible mass of loneliness and self-doubt.
The next character to revolve into view on Resident Designer Simone Romaniuk's clever circular set—which, reminiscent of a girl's jewelry box, either nestles Murray-Smith's women into a dream-like concave interior or forces their backs up against a forbidding convex wall—shares none of Tiggy's aversion to public exposure. We meet Catholic high-schooler Mary O'Donnell minutes before she is scheduled to give what she prays—in language which would make a saint's hair stand on end—will be the signature performance of the St Brigid's school talent-show. A picture of prancing desperation only marginally more funny than terrifying at times, Mary attempts to alert God to the fact that arch-rival Angela McTerry is actually Satan clad in tangerine chiffon, in the hope that He will see fit to smite what she sees as the largest obstacle between her and a life of fame and fortune.
Therese the bride also appears at first to be a willing sacrifice, albeit to a much older social trend, whose downside she now confronts with the assistance of too much—or perhaps just enough—pre-wedding champagne. A partial reprise of Meryl's rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness, this alcohol-lubricated journey through the social looking-glass is nevertheless as uni-directional as Meryl's is circular; a bawdy and brutally-frank reckoning which culminates in a blood-curdling scream of decompression as Therese realises that it's actually all about The Dress.
But if Therese's impending mismatch with Ted the "human pot-plant" produces some of the evening's funniest lines, Winsome the 64 year-old widow is left to deliver those which most swiftly and powerfully transport us to the razor-edged gap between what we think life should be, and what it actually is—therefore, also, to the source of Bombshells' bitter-sweet comedy. A wise-woman who has walked out of the shadow of grief with measured steps of charitable routine, Winsome relates her experience of "surviving the defeat of expectations" only to find herself cloaked in the social black-out so often conferred upon women of whom nothing further now seems to be required. O'Leary's delivery of Winsome's quiet tale of literary seduction is a triumph of solo stagecraft, the metaphorical afterglow of which continues to thrill for days afterwards.
Winsome's time on stage represents such a peak combination of powerful writing and masterful performance as to render the show's final vignette—an extended cabaret number by Zoe the ageing diva—somewhat problematic. Though Zoe's glittering entrance, amplified by hitherto-hidden mirrors in the set's inner wall, gives every appearance of launching an all-singing all-dancing grand finale, the audience instead receives a half-sung, half-spoken ego-trip from a substance-ravaged lounge-circuit queen whose halcyon days are clearly well behind her. Perhaps the anti-climactic tone of the scene is intentional; in an artistic sense, to defeat some of the audience's expectations would seem to serve one of Bombshells' principal themes, as well as reflecting the "whimper-rather-than-bang" twilight in which Zoe dwells. However, the audience on this particular night seemed unable to overcome its confusion rapidly enough to offer more than half-hearted titters in response to Zoe's more amusing lines; an uncertainty exacerbated by the excessively-loud backing tracks, which—from the Cremorne's gallery at least—rendered some of the undoubtedly-clever song lyrics inaudible. The effect was in some ways as unfortunate as it was unexpected, causing a palpable note of strain to sound through the applause which O'Leary received at the final curtain call—a response which was sadly unreflective either of her superb performance or of the audience's overall appreciation thus far.
Taken in its larger context, however, this lukewarm finish can be seen as indicative of an intention on QTC's part to remain faithful to the play as it is written, and therefore, also, of a refusal to patronise from which Brisbane theatre-lovers can take much heart. Simply put, Bombshells is not a play which offers any kind of climactic resolution or unifying "take-home message". Its aim is to unsettle; to pose unanswerable questions to which ultimately the only sincere response is the cathartic act of laughter. That Wesley Enoch has recognised this, and foregone any attempt to force a neat conclusion into the work for the sake of a more readily-palatable entertainment experience, foreshadows exciting times to come for Queensland's flagship theatre company. The sooner Brisbane's true lovers of the dramatic arts buy their tickets and join the adventure, the sooner will come their reward in the form of theatrical experiences such as Bombshells, which unites a comedy of complexity and relevance with a compelling example of the potential of solo performance, the equal of which is unlikely to be repeated on any Brisbane stage this year.