It’s not often a review actually breaks my heart to write. I’m not afraid to give my thoughts about a show, good or bad, and certainly I try not to shy away from the truth. There are times I might give an ego a thwacking with a pointy reckoning and there are times I might gently massage that criticism to be as kind and as thoughtful as I can be. It is dependent on many different factors on which end of the stick you get but it normally boils down to the level of experience invested in creating the show, its professional standing and how much you’ve charged me to watch it. There are other factors, of course, like whether you’ve thought about your audience or your ego or does the show offer a potential that if given some honest feedback, might learn and do better? And that’s all it is really. It’s an opinion from a member of your audience who knows a thing or two about theatre in an effort to create a conversation about what’s out there. Take it. Leave it. Ignore it. Burn it. Love it. It’s up to you.
Rarely do I see a show where I can see that everyone who has invested in that show has poured their heart and soul into it and it hasn’t worked on any level. It carries their hopes and dreams of exploring issues that are so important to them, that they have exposed themselves so completely they are standing naked in that space, fragile and vulnerable to criticism. They haven’t been able to step outside the production to look at it objectively or they don’t realise how muddled it is in its expression of ideas. And I wish so very much that I could say good things about those shows. It makes me extremely sad when I can’t.
‘Into The Mirror’ at King St Theatre is one of those shows.
Shelley Wall has written and directed a show about something that she is passionate about- transgender issues. Her passion is evident as she goes from table to table at interval, greeting audience members and wishing them a pleasant evening and her hopes that they are enjoying the show. She is brimming with pride at her creation and you can feel her warmth for the whole project. I have to say that it is the first time I’ve ever been given a ‘pack’ of resources in my role as reviewer- the script, program, a CD inspired by the story and cast, a photo pack, a flyer. It becomes clear that this is not just a show- it’s a crusade. And a little piece of me just dies as I watch the show and realise there’s not much I can say about this show to justify the effort Wall and company have invested.
Like ripping off a bandaid, let’s get to it.
I’ll start with the writing. It’s naïve and juvenile in its expression and thematic explorations. In the first 10 minutes we are introduced to protagonist Kendall (nee Sally) played by Penny Day, his daughter Melanie (Amber Robinson) and housemate, old friend Sophia (Carole Sharkey-Waters). Not only do we learn that Melanie is a pop star, home to visit mum (who is now transitioning into Kendall) but we get a plethora of reported action and backstory that involves Sophia’s previous life as a prostitute, marriage break-ups, Melanie’s childhood, Sophia’s lost son she hasn’t seen in years and the play then dives into other issues such as lesbian relationships, rape, incest, adoption, abortion, Alzheimer’s, infidelity, abandonment, suicide, same-sex marriage, abuse… It’s an issues bingo that heavily relies on co-incidence, flowery clichés, unrealistic dialogue and not for one moment can we believe it.
Because Wall has crammed every idea that she wants to highlight into her play, it has no control whatsoever. If Wall was one of my students, I would have suggested she decide what was the most important idea and make that her sole focus instead of overburdening the play with too many issues that will actually detract from the very one she wanted to explore.
Without realising it, the message she has sent by throwing all these ideas into the pot is that people who are gay, lesbian or transgender are that way because of previous abuse or trauma. This is dangerous territory indeed and incredibly naïve if not just plain wrong. I’m sure that was not her intention but that is how it can be read.
The production is earnest but cannot overcome the immaturity of its writing. We can’t believe Day’s portrayal as Kendall because we can’t believe that anyone would ever mistake her for a man. Her old fashioned clothes, the hat that doesn’t fit and her feminine mannerisms, dialogue and voice are an obstacle too big to climb. Phrases like “…the different shades of green decorated by an array of colourful blooms, pollinated by those busy little bees…” or after Tyler announces her past abuse Kendall responds with the lines, “Miss Tyler, may I ask for your hand in courtship? Now may I have the honour of finishing our dance?” are dead giveaways that Kendall is a long way from discovering masculinity. Sharkey-Waters as Sophia is a mass of confusion. Is she a drag queen? In care for Alzheimer’s at one stage and labelled a man by her tormenting nurse, we are left to try to figure out who is who in this play? ‘Into the Mirror’ is a classic melodrama trying to be realism and failing on both counts.
The younger actresses give a little more to the play in their attempt to realise almost impossible one-dimensional or stereotypical roles. Helen Stuart as Tyler was probably the pick of the bunch but Amber Robinson and occasionally Katie Lees (Laura) had moments trying to make it work.
The best I could say is good on you for attempting to deal with issues that need to be heard. I love to see writers tackling such weighty and rarely explored content.
I hope that putting on this play gives Shelley Wall and her ensemble great joy. I also have an admiration for the courage it takes to stage an original work with such gusto and care and I really am sorry I couldn’t find more to like about the show.
But as a piece of theatre it completely misses the mark.