Review: This Year’s Ashes

by Jane

This Year's Ashes Production Shot: Ellen and a one night stand.  This is not her place.

Forming a new relationship can be a funny thing.

Perhaps they’re a friend-of-a-friend.  Or a friend-of-many-friends.  You’ve heard their name in conversations, over rooms, seen them comment on facebook status updates, anonymously followed them on twitter.  You’ve heard great things.  Or the curiously intriguing I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

So you jump on a plane to Sydney, walk through the streets (with a detour by the Harbour – so much water is remarkable and incomprehensible), with one hand on the Maps app on your phone, trying to find the hidden theatre you’ve never been to before.  You find it, a darling little shack of wood, sticking out on a corner, double doors open looking out onto the small suburban street.  You grab your ticket and program (the script, no less!) and a glass of wine, and sit down and watch the shinny procession of glizty dresses, tendered dos, and high heels walk their way through the foyer: this is not the audience you’d expected to be sitting in.

Okay, so maybe this is just a little bit specific to my own relationship with This Year’s Ashes.

A new Australian play! Female writer, director, lead! Self professed “romantic comedy”! Set in my current favourite city-of-choice! Intimate theatre venue!

Expectations are a curious thing.  I suppose they are something that I “should” leave at the door.  But you know me, I can’t help it.  I go to theatre because I irrepressibly love it; because I get excited by it; because I expect great things from it.  Sometimes, these expectations are moulded by marketing and press, by reviews, by friends, by an undeniable excitement of escaping to Sydney for the weekend.

And it’s not that we didn’t get along. Yes, it took me a while to get going.  I was almost there by the end of act one, but This Year’s Ashes never swept me up and away and in love on an adventurous theatrical relationship.  Something just wasn’t quite right, we never settled into that easy comfort I want in a theatrical relations.  That’s okay.  It happens. But I think that slight sting of uncertainty – was it me?  was it something I did? – is a little bit sharper when you perceive all of the elements to be there: so why wasn’t the chemistry?

This Year's Ashes Production Photo: Ellen and Brian

Ellen’s relationships: two unhappy, unsettled years in Sydney, never comfortable in moving on from her Melbourne roots; an ongoing relationship with wine, champagne, and vodka – sometimes alone, sometimes out in a pub; a series of one-night stands – at his house, not at hers – where the men all look the same; a hot and sticky summer with the radio, her dad, and The Ashes to keep her company, and to keep her mind off her life.

The words “romantic comedy” can get a bad wrap.  “Light fluff”, “chick lit”.  But at its core – when it’s not falling into the tropes of you must choose your love life over your job, it’s the quirky girl’s job to save the emotionally stunted man – it’s kind of everything, isn’t it?  Our lives, no matter how eventful they are, no matter how many things we search for:  it comes down to romance and fun.  That might not necessarily be a relationship romance.  Friends, jobs, cities, art: they can all be the sources of our attractions.  But it’s this search for these attractions, this search to make ourselves comfortable in our worlds, this search to smile more than we frown, to laugh more than we cry, that we measure our lives by.

Brodie’s script has an honest and unfrightened naturalism about trying to find a place where you feel you don’t fit at all.  Fitting with the genre, it at times walks along the edge of too much sweetness, but that is one of the joys of this production.  The men Ellen goes home with might not be the best; Ellen herself might not be the most emotionally stable; Brian might not always be the most open communicator: but there is a little (or a lot) to love in them all.  The sweetness in the text doesn’t mean it’s without its pain.  Along with joy and love and laughs, This Year’s Ashes comes with heartache and sorrow, and with lots of cricket.  Just some of the ingredients in a life lived.

I’ve written already this year: there is something I love about knowing a shows specificity to a place, even if that’s not my place and I can’t quite follow along.  This Year’s Ashes has this twice: in Sydney, and in cricket.  No, I can’t follow Adam’s map through Sydney, no I have no clue what Brian is describing in the cricket.  But I like that these people do: we don’t have the same live and so it’s comforting, almost, to know there is no way we would have the same knowledge.

In the role of the at times frustrating Ellen (why are you still here then? I found myself asking, go back to Melbourne, I’ll take your place), Belinda Bromilow is a true delight.  Teetering on the edge of breakdown and keeping it all under control, Bromilow’s Ellen is always warm: be her stoic or outwardly emotional, she’s a woman you could fall for – if only she could get her own happiness sorted out.

Tony Llewllyn-Jones balances that care and, well, “dadness” of fatherhood with ease.   Nathan Lovejoy beguiles the audience in the role of Adam, a genuinely good guy who we all want to be happy.   I’m interested in how much Adam’s clothing (designer Rita Carmody) fits into a very contemporary 2011 version of sexy: slightly nerdy thick glasses, tight-ish jeans and a plaid shirt.  How would he be dressed if this play was presented two years in the past, two years in the future?  Almost sitting on that cusp of hipsterdom, Adam’s uniform is one of the left-leaning, art-loving, friendly-hug-giving sect.  You need things to work out well for this man.

This Year's Ashes production shot: Adam and Ellen

A strength of Bodie’s script (although, perhaps one of the reasons I never felt I fell completely into the production) is the way facts reveal themselves along the piece, causing you to go back and realign the judgements you had made about the characters: what you thought was perhaps odd behaviour all makes sense in the turn of a line.

Director Shannon Murphy places a light hand on the production, giving her actors and Bodie’s script much room to flow and breathe.  Embracing the simple theatricality: suggestive lights (Verity Hampson), carrying music (composition Steve Francis, sound design Nate Edmondson), single set (Carmody), Ellen’s bedroom becomes every room.  A procession of Ikea lamps and strewn clothes, places and times mixing and melding together.  Until through the words of Adam, we are off on an adventure across Sydney, a magical escape without a hand to touch the setting.

As a solitary mobile phone glows in the dark in the final moments of the play, our hearts are heavy with the knowledge of what this means for Ellen.  But also, they’re not: maybe, no matter what happens, we will all sort it out eventually.

The more This Year’s Ashes sits with me, the more I like it. Is this me molding my perceptions, fixing memories to make them something better?  Maybe.  Is this an acceptable response?  Yes, I think so.  Plays, life, relationships: they stay with you.  Our memories are never what they seem. But as my fingers dance across my keyboard, my memory sits with Ellen and her story and a smile creeps across my face. She didn’t sweep me away, but everything else I wanted – new Australian work, female creatives and lead, romantic comedy, Sydney, Griffin – I got.  And that’s still pretty special.

Griffin Theatre Company presents This Year’s Ashes by Jane Bodie.  Directed by Shannon Murphy, assistant director Brandon Martignago, designer Rita Carmody, lighting designer Verity Hampson, composer Steve Francis, sound designer Nate Edmondson.  With Belinda Bromilow, Tony Llewllyn-Jones, and Nathan Lovejoy.  At Griffin Theatre until Nov 19.  More information and tickets.