Review: Life Etc.: All Together Now at Empire Theatre (Toowoomba)

Image: Empire Theatre

And so, tonight to the theatre again – this time to Toowoomba’s Empire Theatre Studio and part of a full house for David Burton’s new play Life Etc. part of the theatre’s Home Grown Series of new worksIt’s also the first work from the collective All Together Now who ‘aim to create more “gutsy and juicy” roles for women within the theatre industry in Queensland and strongly believe in supporting women in theatre.’ (programme note)

It’s always exciting to be seeing a new work: no preconceptions, just an open road to travel for (in this case) 75 or so minutes with the two protagonists Tash (Emily Curtin) and Karen (Kate Murphy).  

Tash has screwed up in her job at Centrelink. Her boss Karen has to fire her but not before they spend an evening fixing up reams of paperwork – coloured papers which are sifted and sorted. Tash and Karen work surrounded by piles and piles of cardboard boxes – a clever (if uncredited) set design which contains various prop pieces brought out into the action.

As the papers are sorted Tash brings out the brownies and Karen a bottle of wine. They eat, drink and share some often uncomfortable personal facts with each other. Their interaction is, by turn, light and sombre although, in the opening minutes, there are a couple of bits of juvenilia and clowning about that make the play appear a tad insecure about itself. However, the old farting jokes had the audience rollicking, and an otherwise apparently mature man besides me fell apart at the mention of the word, ‘poo.’ But it’s not all light sitcom or  girly D&M stuff; the play itself gets far more interesting as a piece of theatre when it goes beyond Tash and Karen’s after-hours shift at Centrelink.

Despite their talk of God and life and death the Tash-Karen exchanges are really just the jumping off point for David Burton’s fable about our shared humanity with all its tricks and trials. The dramatic action between the two women takes a stylistic shift into narrative theatre as short snippets of stories about people – far and near – fleck the narrative. These are the little jewels in the writing and in the performing.

Somewhere during their conversation Tash tells Karen that she once packed all of her belongings into a single box and labelled it ‘Life Etc.’ This labelled box not only supplies the play’s title, but also becomes its defining metaphor. The boxes that appear during the narrative and the rows and stacks that surround the action contain fragments of  life stories. As some of these boxes are opened for us the stories emerge.

Life Etc. is an actor-centric piece and the willowy, auburn Ms Curtin and  small, blonde Ms Murphy are well-matched opposites. Both are in fine form as they create a raft of characters from this life we are all sharing in the right here and right now. The staging of action needs work; the Karen-Tash sequences are placed oddly on opposite sides of the stage and some entrances and exists could do with a tidy up. No one is credited with direction for the work. It could do with a strong hand.

Life Etc. is a spare, short play which, in its current incarnation, feels like a sketch for a larger, more philosophical and complex work. Its heart lies in the ‘communion of spirits’ theme which weaves its way throughout the work but which is not, as yet, satisfactorily realised in coherent dramatic action. Its strengths lie in its unselfconscious theatricality – a playful spirit that engages the audience through direct address, stylistic shape-shifting from embodiment to narration, and the writer’s obvious delight in the power of narrative. In case you are wondering – yes, there is a puppet – the rather delightful Parisian Stick Girl from one of the many tales.  

And, speaking of theatricality – there’s a nice touch at the end of the play when we’re told, ‘somewhere an audience is watching the final moments of a show.’ As the actor spoke these words it felt to me as though the audience caught the moment and moved – almost imperceptibly – in acknowledgement.