The Association

The Association
By Perri Cummings with Lee McClenaghan & Jennifer Monk. Girls Act Good. 64 Pentland Avenue, Yarraville. 18 – 30 July 2017

The venue, 64 Pentland Avenue, is a modest weatherboard cottage in suburban Yarraville.  Its porchlight beams through the shadows.  We – the audience, eight or nine of us - stand outside in the cold evening street.  A figure appears in a black cloak and hood, her face in shadow.  She asks if we are there for the ‘meeting’.  We say we are.  Have we brought jam?  Alas, no.  We realise the show has begun: this figure is already ‘in character’.  She is ‘Audrey’ (Lisa Dallinger), the brusque and somewhat bitchy member of ‘the association’.  My Companion asks if all the members wear the cloak and hood?  ‘Only the initiates,’ says Audrey in a husky, portentous tone.  Suddenly the cape and hood in the shadows are a little sinister.

Audrey directs us down a side passage.  On the back patio, 1950s women’s magazines and CWA leaflets.  There’s a duty roster in the ‘Powder Room’.  Inside, in the brightly lit kitchen, we can see more sinister hooded figures.  They emerge, chanting a ritual pledge.  New President, Betty (Jennifer Monk), recently installed, taking over from a very cheesed off Phyllis (Emily Joy), welcomes us.  Very occasionally, a frosty, condescending smile crosses Betty’s stern features.  Nancy (Perri Cummings) hands out or membership badges.  For this evening, we too are members of this most singular branch of the Country Women’s Association - for a meeting with a difference. 

One of our audience turns out to be Joanne (Kelly Kerr Young), fresh-faced and nervous, seeking membership.  This will not be easily bestowed.  We troop into the house, passing a table laden with scones, jam and cream, lamingtons and – a bold modern touch – humus and carrot sticks.  Tonight, uptight, resentful and humourless Phyllis, in a cocktail frock and strappy sandals, is in charge of catering.  

In the hallway, boxes of donations.  President Betty explains: cosmetics, toiletries and books for the women’s prison, and baby clothes for the stillborn.  Yes, that’s right.  Medical science has failed there.  Moving right along to the evening’s meeting, after minutes, of course, and apologies, of course, we have this month’s competition for best jam.  Audrey cheats with a ‘bought’ jar, but Phyllis wins with her cumquat.  Nancy, a psychologist who gives wives ‘relief’ from their painful marriages, presents a short talk on phrenology and advice on making one’s husband a better man – which might involve certain drugs, secretly administered...  Indeed, Phyllis jumps up to report that, following the Association’s advice, her husband is more amenable and they are slowly leaving behind their working-class origins.  New aspirant Joanne is disturbed, but a tone of doctrinaire and vengeful ‘feminism’ justifies the regular members’ response: after all what have men been doing to women for thousands of years?  And is Joanne’s husband’s blood-type AB-Negative?  Does Joanne know what he gets up to?  No?  A gloating Audrey can show her…

To say more would involve too many spoilers, but while we have scones, etc., we are joined by pregnant waif Sylvie (Hannah Davies) who claims to’ve killed her boyfriend.  An even more shocking revelation follows, met by Joanne’s hysterical reaction, interrupted by the panicked arrival of Ruthanne (Lee McClenaghan), fleeing her abusive husband (uncredited).  He is even now howling and beating on the front door.  A brawl between Audrey and Phyllis breaks out in the kitchen.  Nancy hastily ushers us all out into the night for our own safety, just reminding us, in passing, that next month’s meeting’s competition will be most exotic herb from our gardens…   

Girls Act Good is a collective of talented women who should be more widely known and widely seen.  In this production – an ‘immersive theatre’ evening, directed by Lee McClenaghan – Perri Cummings and her collaborators have come up with a show that is at once inventive, creepy, satirical and witty.  The acting is a little uneven but is sure to improve.  There are a couple of missed opportunities in the ‘plot’ and sometimes the dialogue is just a little clunky, but the whole thing is carried off with such confidence and panache these things scarcely matter.  Such touches as Phyllis pausing in bashing Audrey to put a coin in the ‘swear jar’ – she used the f-word – are delightful.  Audience members that enter fully into proceedings with comment and questions are readily met with appropriate improvisations.  You won’t find another show like this one soon – or one like this that’s as much fun.  Join the CWA for an evening and see what happens.

Michael Brindley

Photographer: Eadie Testro-Girasole

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