‘Tiddas’ was Jacaranda.
Before the curtains open, an Acknowledgement of Country is read: I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Jagera and Turrbal people and pay respect to their elders past, present and emerging.
After declaring that stories have been told in this place for thousands of years we move on. However, in La Boite Theatre’s latest production of ‘Tiddas’, which is a co-production with QPAC and the Brisbane Festival, this show is, in some ways, a theatrical embodiment of a Welcome to Country.
Based on Anita Heiss’s 2014 novel of the same name, the play is set on the streets of Brisbane or as it’s referred to in the play by its Aboriginal name, Meeanjin. ‘Tiddas’ which takes its title from an Aboriginal term for “women who are like sisters” explores the lives of five women (three who are Aboriginal and two who are not) who have been friends since childhood. The group comes together for a monthly book club as their lives evolve and devolve around them. On the surface, this could easily become a cliché melodrama but thanks to strong performances and clever technical elements the play rises above and allows audiences to leave with a nice feeling of having had a good time at the theatre.
Heiss, a first-time playwright, adapts her own novel, bringing a pleasant feeling of authenticity to the proceedings. With a forthright earnestness, characters proclaim their feelings loudly in long speeches that perhaps would feel more at home in Heiss’s political commentary work, which is where she has become best known throughout the last decade. That being said, the writing is at times incredibly funny and thought-provoking with good points being made about the role fiction has to play in White Australia’s understanding of Aboriginal history, alcoholism and motherhood. The writing wears its heart on its sleeve and what it lacks in the subtlety of character, it makes up for in conviction of purpose. At its best, it has the feeling of an airport novel brought to life on stage.
Any shortcomings found in the writing were well and truly made up for in the performances. The whole ensemble sings together in harmony. Leading the ensemble as the five women are Chenoa Deemal, Anna McMahon, Louise Brehmer, Phoebe Grainer and Shakira Clanton, all of whom bring a three-dimensionality to their respective roles which otherwise could have been stereotyped.
Deemal brings a naughty humour to the commitmentphobic Ellen, who is haunted by her father’s abandonment years earlier. Grainer has a deadly passion as Izzy, a career-focused woman confronted with a difficult choice on whether she is ready to start a family. Brehmer creates a sympathetic portrait of Nadine, an alcoholic writer confronting her white guilt. McMahon shows real heart as Veronica, a recent divorcee, trying to keep her friend group together as her own life threatens to fall apart. Clanton, perhaps the least well-known to Brisbane audiences, gives a star-is-born turn as Xanthe, a happily married woman struggling to conceive a child she so desperately wants. Rounding out the ensemble is Roxanne McDonald and Sean Dow both of whom play a multitude of characters. While occasionally this is confusing as to which character is which, both McDonald and Dow get many a moment to shine.
While it has often been said by this reviewer that no one should leave the theatre humming the scenery in ‘Tiddas’, the scenery sure did sing. Set and Costume designer Zoe Rouse brings the streets of Meeanjin to life through a multipurpose revolve space that doubles as everything from the deck of an old Queenslander to the leafy streets of “Upper Paddington” to the modern fittings of Kangaroo Point apartment. Lighting designer Jason Glenwright and Sound Designer Will Hughes work together to help guide the audience’s eye with subtle but striking lighting design and stark but effective sound design.
It’s often said that theatre is a writers’ medium and when watching ‘Tiddas’ it’s hard to be left with any doubt just how important good direction is to the theatrical medium. Bringing the uneven elements together is Nadine McDonald-Dowd’s strong and powerful direction. McDonald-Dowd creates a pace that travels fast enough to allow audiences to skip over any shortcomings in the writing but slow enough to allow the play to breathe and allow the fantastic performances to come through.
The framing device in this play is a book club and it would not be a stretch to believe that many in the audience had picked apart the novel over a wine or two with their female friends. They lapped it up. Who am I to tell them that they should not enjoy themselves? Is ‘Tiddas’ a play adaptation of a book that the Sydney Morning Herald said was “pretty run-of-the-mill” – yes, however, for the audience that eats chic-lit for like it’s chocolate, then I’m sure this sweet adaptation will give them the sugar hit they so desperately crave.
‘Tiddas’ performs until Saturday, 24 September 2022 at the Roundhouse Theatre in Kelvin Grove. For more information, visit La Boite Theatre’s website.
Photography by Shutterstorm Photography