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Contest at Northcote Town Hall - Review

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A surreal motley of ideas exploring existential darkness
contest, emily tomlins, northcote town hall, netball
Cassandra, played by Emily Tomlins. Source: Supplied

Warning: this review contains minor spoilers

Emilie Collyer's Contest centres around a misfit, Cassandra (Wing Attack), who has recently joined a social netball team. She is named after the Cassandra of Greek Mythology, who as cursed to share prophecies no one else believed. Accordingly, she is troubled and prone to dark visions which she expresses through verse-like rants. The most familiar of these over the course of the night was: It was a house and it was on fire / I was the house and I was on fire. The four other players do not understand her; they complain about her behind her back and offer shallow, dismissive support to her face. These four are not terrible people, but they are, to varying degrees, selfish and competitive: both on the netball court and in the locker room small talk. This contrasts with Cassandra's lack of pettiness and lack of competitiveness, most notably in the game scene when the players call out game related demands, while Cassandra grapples aloud with darkness. Her visions of decay, pain and death preclude her caring. Which expresses the central idea: when we acknowledge life's darkness, our pettiness and competition dissolve.

Credit: Emily Tomlins, Sonya Suares, Kate Hood, Natasha Herbert & Alice Ansara / Photo Sarah Walker

Contest is not plot-driven. Sudden unrealistic character changes occur that would be problematic if it was. Rather, it is ideas driven. Perhaps there are too many ideas: the play tries to achieve a lot, with laudatory ambition but imperfect results. Various topics are introduced or hinted at, such as domestic abuse, chronic illness, eating disorders and sexism in society. These topics are raised but not rounded off; as a viewer, they may seem irrelevant or make the backstories of the characters inconsistent. This can be forgiven because the play is conversational (being, after all, an extended chat by a social netball team) and because of its other strengths.

The stage includes lockers, a bench and a netball court. There are two elevated rows of seats on either side, making the viewing immersive. Sometimes you watch the action from behind; other times, an actor delivers lines two metres away from you. The play uses space to brilliant effect, with a lot of movement around the court, either during scenes or to break them up, often to the accompaniment of music. Without giving too much away, the use of props, lighting and effects is amazing. Things happen that you do not expect, making viewing very surreal and disconcerting, which enhances the play's message.

Credit: Emily Tomlins & Sonya Suares / Photo Sarah Walker

Additionally, the performances were stellar, in particular by Alice Ansara who captured the personality that must talk to fill the silence; and Emily Tomlins, who captured the darkness, bitterness and pain of lead role Cassandra. At one point, technicians paused the show because of a sound difficulty, however, the cast did a great job of continuing to be entertaining during the pause by warming-up for the upcoming netball game in character and resuming their characters seamlessly when the play restarted.

The show is running until Saturday August 4 and is worth checking out: it leaves a deep impression. Buy tickets here.
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*Sam Richards was invited as a guest
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Why? Surreal question-asking play; impressive props and acting
When: Until August 4
Phone: 9481 9500
Where: Northcote Town Hall
Cost: $33 Adult; $28 Concession
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