Marjorie Unravelled - Tasmania's Fantabulous Edna!
Earl Arts Centre
September 9th 2021
For many Tasmanians in the audience, this play will evoke the sights, sounds, and smells of their childhoods. For those with a more metropolitan backstory, this play will not only feel foreign, it will feel positively alien.
This play has already had a long life, having evolved over the past few years, with several readings and opportunities to be workshopped both interstate and overseas. I was lucky enough to catch one of its outings at the Albert Hall some time ago, so it was a real treat to see how much the piece has changed and grown since then.
Marjorie Unravelled – Tasmania’s Fantabulous Edna tells the story of the famous (infamous?) queen of thrift and upcycling, Marjorie Bligh, and boy is she an inspired choice for a biographical musical. Three actors portray her over the course of the play, enabling us to see her transition from a wide-eyed and naïve young woman to a self-assured entrepreneur and much-admired author.
Yasmine Barrett takes on the role of Marjorie at her youngest and does so with gusto (and an ocker accent reminiscent of Monty Python’s Bruce's sketch). Next comes Sally Crates in the role, whose glittering soprano voice leads us through, in my opinion, the most interesting parts of the play. Finally, (though we meet her in the opening scene) Marjorie at her eldest is portrayed by Anne Bridge, who is gifted the show’s only true moment of pathos and navigates it bravely. Each performer provides their own spin on Marjorie and they do so with a delightful energy.
A minor gripe is that there was a missed opportunity for continuity between the Marjorie's by way of inconsistent accents and physicality (though it did serve to clearly distinguish the different timelines). Somewhat counter-intuitively, the female leads really shone most not in their time as Marjorie but as the various other supporting roles that they all take turns in. Barrett’s portrayal of a Marjorie super fan was executed with terrifying commitment and energy and was an audience favourite.
Matthew Hyde is given the delicious task of portraying all of the men in Marjorie’s life and does brilliantly at making clearly distinct characters out of each. As the story plays out chronologically it would have been nice to see one of his characters age, as Marjorie does, but that is a small gripe easily assuaged by the sheer energy Hyde brings to each role.
The surprise element of this piece is the use of its tech crew, who not only serve in their traditional capacities but also take part in choreography and serve in some of the minor roles. It brings a ‘meta’ element to the show, adds to the feeling that anything can happen, and is quite endearing. Director Matt Taylor is to be commended for this choice, as well as for all of the many directorial decisions that serve to infuse the piece with zany energy and an unashamed theatricality (the manner in which the motorbike and bus are realised on stage is delightful). What I would have liked to see is an even tighter show, as some of the set changes and transitions do tend to drag their heels.
The show by no means opens with its strongest musical number, but fear not, more hummable tunes are on the way. When it’s good, it’s good, but some of the songs would clearly function better in a key more comfortable for that particular performer (which could be solved either by transposing pieces or in the casting phase). As the performers aren’t wearing microphones (which is the right decision for a space like the Earl Arts Centre), we do sometimes lose dialogue when the blocking dictates that the performers turn away from the audience. The two-piece band do a good job, but it is a strange choice not to have them play through the theatre’s speakers. Instead, the music comes from the upstage left corner of the set where the band reside.
The set is efficient, gorgeous, welcoming, and suitably garish, though the beautiful colours of the set and lighting are undercut by the retention of the theatre’s plain black stage. The costumes also drive home the intensely kitsch aesthetic of the piece that, for anyone who grew up in Tasmania, will no doubt trigger melancholic flashbacks.
Some of the published advice from Bligh that makes it into the show will also stir up memories for some. For the first time in many years, I recalled the tomatoes in my grandparent’s veggie patch, all tied to their stakes by Nana’s old stockings. Some of the ‘tips’ Bligh propagated are brilliant recommendations for upcycling, while others are nothing short of inexplicable superstitions, and what’s for certain is that there should have been far, far more of them in this script.
The script is tentative in its approach to describing Marjorie Bligh, neither portraying her totally sympathetically nor with tongue firmly in cheek. One wonders how bold and brave this little play could be were it performed somewhere like the Edinburgh Fringe, far from the watchful eyes those who knew Bligh personally. There’s a version of this show in a parallel universe that is an hour shorter, much zanier, and retitled (the baffling choice of title for the show does not do the play justice). That said, a musical about Marjorie Bligh is nothing short of inspired, so hats off to Stella Kent for having the vision to recognise that.
The Launceston Players are to be commended for producing an original musical by a local writer with local subject matter. It’s an incredibly brave move that I would love to see happen more often, and an endeavour that really deserves to be rewarded with good audiences. Get along and support this show.
Review By Jimmy Harrison