Alana Valentine is probably Australia’s greatest verbatim playwright. For well over a decade now, Valentine has been interviewing people from all walks of life about their experiences, traumas and passions, and bringing their words to the stage.
But in Ladies Day, Valentine’s latest play about a fledgling gay community in the small Western Australian town of Broome, the playwright unexpectedly turns the spotlight onto herself.
However, it takes Valentine a little while to get to this moment of catharsis and engrossing theatrical revelation. First of all, she has to paint a picture of gay life in Broome.
In Valentine’s version (and this may be the real Broome — I’ve never been there) the small gay community is made up of a series of fairly stereotypical subcultures. Liam (Matthew Backer), a young man who lives in Broome, describes the “gay form guide” in an early scene, which includes “Mr Been Here For Years”, “Bad boy runaway from the big bad scene down south”, “The Sissy Sister”, and “Straight Acting partner of Sissy Boy who came out late”.
Playwright Lorena (Lucia Mastrantone) has come to Broome on a holiday and has decided there might be something here for her next play. She immediately sets about interviewing community members, but when things take a violent turn in the town, her work changes shape.
The beginning of the play is full of witty quips traded mainly between the two protagonists Liam and Mike (Wade Briggs). I imagine most of the dialogue would have come from Valentine’s interviews, but what might’ve seemed hilarious, off-the-cuff banter between friends and a playwright can fall a little flat here.
With boisterous and lively direction by Darren Yap, and the familiar theme of drag and queer culture encountering the macho communities of Australia’s outback, it inevitably has a bit of Priscilla about it. And there are some clever and quite funny songs from composer Max Lambert in the mix.
But the barbs aren’t particularly sharp and two passages of dialogue are just riffs on a familiar theme — gay men being disparaging towards lesbians — which might highlight the misogynistic elements in some gay communities, but ultimately aren’t all that enlightening.
There are also some scenes which reach dramatic peaks without establishing the relationships necessary to really earn them. Vicious arguments spark and boil over a little too quickly.
Then, suddenly, the play takes an intriguing turn and a lot of that flatness in the dialogue is forgiven. There’s a turning point which feels like the moment Valentine finally got under the skin of her subjects, and what emerges is quite surprising and vulnerable.
The play features some great performances, with Matthew Backer out front as the sweet and well-meaning Liam. The character is just so sincere and kind that it’s almost difficult to like him, but Backer finds something very endearing within it.
Lucia Mastrantone finds every facet of Lorena, the playwright — her empathy, her strength and passion for truth and justice. Elan Zavelsky delivers a very moving performance as Rodney, a slightly older man who’s escaped from Sydney’s gay scene to find a new sense of self.
Wade Briggs is also very good and finds Mike’s (aka Madame Ovary) seething anger, although I’m not convinced he’s completely balanced the prickliness of his character with the insecurity which underlies it all. It’s not an easy task, but I imagine he’ll find that sweet spot over the course of the season.
Valentine is grappling with all variety of issues — how a life can be inevitably shaped by sexuality, the value we place upon ourselves, the ramifications of trauma, and notions of justice — but the biggest question at the core of her work is one about how we tell stories within our communities and whether our right to the truth overrides other concerns.
That might all sound kind of heavy, but this is a thoughtful and generously entertaining play, and its 100 minute running time flies by.