To Lonely, With Love

To Lonely, With Love
Created by Jennifer Monk, Perri Cummings & Lisa Dallinger. Text by Perri Cummings. Directed by Jennifer Monk. La Mama’s 2016 EXPLORATIONS Season. La Mama Theatre. 11, 12 & 13 October 2016.

There’s a lonely fellow in gaol, Roger.  There’s a lonely housewife in an unhappy marriage, Samantha (Sam).  They write to each other.  They tell each other things they tell to no one else – maybe because no one else would care.  There’s also an ‘advice columnist’, a ‘Miss Lonely Hearts’, called Shari who supplies what she probably thinks is advice.  If this all sounds downbeat and a bit weepy, it is neither.  The show’s creators have made something that is – fundamentally – deeply serious and often heartbreakingly poignant, but infused the characters and their letters sent and received with energy, movement, clever choreography, comedy and speedy transformations. 

Jennifer Monk loves writing and receiving letters – that is, ‘real’ letters, hard copy if you like, that you think about and post in the red box and receive in your letterbox.  She regrets that this form of communication seems to be dying out, as a written letter is likely to be more considered and to give more to both receiver and sender.  She’s had pen pals from the age of seven and her letters – real letters - are the raw material, shaped by Perri Cummings, into the text for this show.

Ms Monk and Lisa Dallinger play Roger and Samantha and Shari, but they switch constantly between roles.  First, they literally burst onto the stage as comic, stylised, stickybeak posties – over the top, grinning and winking at the audience.  This sets the tone for what follows – up, down, gleeful, mournful, spontaneous, depressed.  Anything can happen.  The stylised wardrobe by Emma Howchin fits the tone exactly: the gaolbird in black and white stripes complete with number across the chest; the pretty little housewife in white polka dots on red.  The action is punctuated by pop songs with a letter theme – Presley’s Return to Sender, the Carpenters’ Please, Mr Postman, and so on.

Ms Monk and Ms Dallinger confide in the audience because, after all, they’re sending letters to someone they can’t see…  When they swap roles  – and sometimes costumes - Ms Dallinger’s Roger is not the same as Ms Monk’s Roger, nor is either one’s version of Sam – or Shari – the same.  Obviously, this is a bold move, but the way it illuminates the variety within the characters (i.e. human beings) is touching and funny.

It’s also a bold move because it would not work were it attempted by lesser actresses than Ms Monk and Ms Dallinger.  But they are consummate performers.  Ms Monk I have seen before and admired her sharp focus, her attention to detail and her complete commitment to her characters.  Here she reveals an amazing musicality and an exuberant, comic side that can disappear in a flash to be replaced by heavy sadness.  Ms Dallinger is a revelation, at least to me; after this show, I can’t wait to see her on stage again.  Her changes from, say, an over-bright, rather girlish Sam to a very blokey, reflective Roger are quite wonderful to behold.

If I have reservations, they are small.  At times the pace can be a little too dazzling, creating some momentary confusions.  The inventive (and perfectly executed) choreography by Lee McClenaghan can sometimes get a touch too busy – movement for movement’s sake – but it’s always entertaining.

After some theatrical disappointments lately at the prestigious Melbourne Festival, this ‘little’ show on the tiny La Mama stage lifts the spirits and restores one’s confidence with its professionalism, its focussed invention, its ideas, heart and intelligence.

Michael Brindley

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