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Sydney review - The Women, a lively comedy

Right: Eleanor Ryan as Crystal Allen. Photo by Bob Seary.

The Women

By Clare Boothe Luce

Directed by Deborah Jones

New Theatre

542 King Street, Newtown

Season: 11 August – 12 September

Women are often stereotypically characterised as catty and superfluous, capable of little but spreading gossip and delighting in the juicy misfortune of the women around them. New Theatre’s production of The Women, written by Clare Boothe Luce and directed by Deborah Jones, engages with these stereotypes and heightens them, to produce a lively comedy of errors in 1930s upper class New York.

Boothe Luce’s writing aimed to illustrate the outrageousness of this typically female behaviour, living lives fixated on men and reducing themselves merely to passive objects of male desire, which tends to abate as ageing and marriage limits a wife’s sex appeal. Jones fulfils Boothe Luce’s aim by satirising the behaviour of each character, enlisting great humour, and uproar from the audience who can’t help but think that women are surely capable of more. And of course, this is true. In depicting women at their lowest, the audience gains awareness of the immense strength and quality women do possess, and how we are so often let down by the social constructs that envelop us.

A large all-female cast of 18 sees the main characters complemented by actors taking on multiple smaller roles, each with individual flair. To me, there were five stand-out performers. Helen Stuart portrays the protagonist, Mary Haines, riddled with her husband’s adulterous ways and disillusioned by the loving marriage she thought she had.

Stuart’s performance follows the narrative arc of the play, reaching its peak as through gritted teeth and a forced smile, realises she was foolish to believe her husband would realise his love for her and ask for her back. Stuart seemed to act as a beacon of calm and reason, a relatable figure in stark contrast to the other wild and more obnoxious women.

Stuart’s conflicting and complex fusion of emotion engages us, as she clings to a morsel of pride whilst meeting the pinnacle of a female’s downfall in the upper class of this era. Mary Haines is also a core link between various characters exhibiting the integral role of relationships in the functioning of a woman – revealing the dynamics between Mary and her mother, daughter, and friends. Deborah Jones was certainly discerning in her casting choices, achieving an effective synergy amongst the cast.

It is crucial that this play communicates the snide and scornful attitude that women allegedly have in relation to one another, in order to hit the mark with the ‘comedy of errors’ style instilled by the playwright. Boothe Luce is not particularly kind to the characters in the play, for good reason – the audience must see that women should aspire to be so much more than the behaviour shown on stage. The character of Sylvia Fowler is critical for expressing this attitude, and Jess Loudon’s performance hits the nail on the head. Snarky to all and interested only in indulging in gossip rather than the welfare of her ‘friends’, Loudon portrays a woman that the audience gleefully loves to hate. She facilitates a great deal of the humour through her social machinations that triggers the downfall of the women around her – yet eventually she succumbs to her own bitter end. Lauren Orrell takes on the role of the sweet and hopeful Peggy Day. Orrell reminded me of Winona Ryder in her Age of Innocence years, and endeared the audience with her relative naivety to the meandering loyalties of men.

The development of Orrell’s performance to gradual disillusionment sparked an emotional response in the audience as her pure and loving aspirations are corrupted, revealing Peggy’s fate to be tantamount to that of her fellow women. Eleanor Ryan embraces the femme fatale role of Crystal Allen, as she snatches Mary’s husband away in an affair and uses the new relationship for her own social advancement. Ryan portrays an alternative aspect of a woman in this society, as she breaks in as an outsider and works the system for personal gain. Yet the audience can’t help but think, can a woman ever win in this society? The perpetually pregnant Edith Potter was hilariously portrayed by Emma Louise, bringing great humour and malice to the stage. Each of these five performers exhibited excellent accent work, adopting the upper class Manhattan accent in accordance with their character. These actors stood out, in amongst a cast of other notable performers – a credit to Jones’ casting and theatrical talent available. A portion of the cast did seem to struggle with the accent work, which contributed to vacillating believability of their performance. This was a shame as overall performances were generally strong, however misplaced accents served to draw attention away from the focal point of the work.

The set design by John Cervenka consisted of a rotating stage, allowing for two alternate facades that made for smooth transitioning between settings in the epitome of 1930s style and flair. Costumes were also in accordance with the era and suited each character’s role, ball gowns, fur stoles and court shoes to boot. Costume co-ordination is attributed to Alexandra Plim, who also gave an acerbic and witty performance as Nancy Blake.

I would like to think that the plight of women addressed in the play has been transcended in the advancement of gender equality, however I cannot say this to be entirely true. Gender role expectations and double standards still persist in our society, with a resounding chorus of groans by both women and men. Thus, The Women is undoubtedly a significant and relevant play, presenting themes of gender inequality that have prevailed over 75 years since Boothe Luce penned the script. New Theatre keenly puts forward a dexterous take on The Women that will both amuse and enthuse.

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