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The Shoe-Horn Sonata review (Ensemble Theatre, Sydney)

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Nothing cements an Australian play’s status as a modern classic quite like inclusion on the school syllabus. It ensures that theatre companies will regularly program the work, confidently able to attract large audiences and school groups (and hopefully establish a relationship with younger audience members). Given that there have already been multiple additional performances added to this third Ensemble season of John Misto’s 1995 play The Shoe-Horn Sonata (with plenty of matinee performances appropriate for school groups), it would seem to be a strategy that works.

Lorraine Bayly and outgoing Ensemble artistic director Sandra Bates return to the roles of Sheila and Bridie, respectively, after first playing these characters in the 1999 Ensemble production. It’s Bates’s swan song with Ensemble after being the theatre’s artistic director for 30 years.

In 1942, Australian army nurses Sheila and Bridie were captured by Japanese soldiers and thrown into a horrific prisoner of war camp. They quickly became best friends, despite their wildly different personalities — Bridie the tough, down-to-earth Aussie nurse and Sheila, the younger, prim Pom, connected to her British roots. They cared for each other as they waited for three years for freedom or death, but lost contact when they were finally released in 1945.

It’s now 1995 and the pair have been thrown back together to be interviewed for a TV special about many of the untold stories of Australian nurses in World War II POW camps. Bridie is thrilled to see Sheila again, but Sheila is unusually stand-offish.

This production, also directed by Bates, has plenty of heart, even if it wasn’t quite as sharp as it should have been on opening night. The dynamic between the pair is strong, and they have the requisite sense of history, but some of the rhythms were a little off and Bates stumbled over a few lines. Those niggles should be ironed out after a few more performances.

The design, by Anna Gardiner, clearly conveys both the studio in which Bridie and Sheila film their interviews and the hotel room in which Sheila is staying. It’s perfectly functional, if not all that attractive, but it’s effectively lit by Peter Neufeld.

The simplicity of the production throws focus onto Bates and Bayly’s performances, and both are captivating. Bates has created a character who is instantly endearing, but seems tough-as-nails down at heart. A lot of that strength has rubbed off on Bayly’s Sheila, who is no longer as innocent as she was 50 years ago. Bayly brings a great deal of humour to her performance, but you can never forget that Sheila has had her life torn apart by memories of the war.

Misto’s play never feels like it’s bogged down in historical detail — rather, that detail serves his close study of friendship and the destructive power of shame. Both are suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, although even in the 1990s it probably wouldn’t have been diagnosed as such. The two characters are written with absolute clarity and a great deal of humour, and their shifting, tumultuous relationship is always at the centre of the work.

Often Misto makes his points painfully, sentimentally obvious — particularly in the play’s final scene when Bridie and Sheila finally dance together. The audience understands exactly what that symbolises without Bridie saying “now that the war is over”.

But it’s that overt sentimentality that’s also the play’s great strength. These are characters who have kept secrets for 50 years and when they finally release there’s an almighty catharsis which lands an emotional wallop on the audience.

The Shoe-Horn Sonata is at the Ensemble Theatre, Sydney until June 28. Featured image by Katy Green Loughrey

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