Sometimes, when I’m at the theatre, I wish I was home watching television. The other night sitting in the Bille Brown Theatre I actually thought, for a moment, that I was watching telly. At the theatre.
Nothing wrong with that. It’s just that so many of us will know Mandy McElhinney from the idiot box.
The talented Western Australian is famous for, among other things, being in an ad. She plays Rhonda, as in Rhonda and Ketut (her Balinese paramour) in a series of rather engaging and memorable AAMI advertisements.
She’s wonderful. She has also impressed playing Gina Rhinehart in the telemovie The House of Hancock and she’s had many other screen and theatrical roles.
She tends to own the screen and the stage too in Queensland Theatre’s latest production, Tiny Beautiful Things. Now I know local thespians are doing a bit of whingeing lately about actors who are not from Queensland being cast in local productions but McElhinney has the kind of star power that is sometimes helpful for a theatre company and frankly, parochialism should not direct casting. Just saying.
Tiny Beautiful Things is based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, the American author who once had an agony aunt column. She was Sugar and people wrote to her for anonymous advice. Sugar, it turns out, was a very fine advice columnist and the somewhat dialectic exchanges that ensued made good copy and a bestselling book.
But was there enough for a play in that? Is this even a play? Someone asked me that after the show.
Fair question too because it’s a really a series of monologues although these monologues are engaging as dialogue and it works a treat.
Nia Vardalos, an Academy Award nominee for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, was moved by Strayed’s book.
“When I first read Tiny Beautiful Things, I was absolutely engulfed by emotion,” she says. “There was this epistolary exchange of emotions between two people trading confidence and touching each other through typeface. It was just an incredible experience to read.
“One thing that really surprised me about Tiny Beautiful Things is when I realised the letters are real and the author, Cheryl Strayed, is really Sugar. She was opening up and revealing her life. It gives a groundedness to these stories. The details of our lives might be different, but we’ve all struggled with our identities or our familial ties.
“I’ve always had such a special connection with Australia and I’m really excited about the play coming to Australia because we have such a kinship with Canada, where I grew up. We share this irony that runs through both Australian and Canadian senses of humour.”
It was the London-based Brisbane producer Trish Wadley who brought the idea of doing this play here to Queensland Theatre’s artistic director Lee Lewis, who ended up loving it. So much so that she decided to direct it herself and she has done a terrific job.
Wadley is great at making connections and this production is presented in association with Trish Wadley Productions. She was the one who engineered the hit London season of local outfit Dead Puppet Society’s cracking production A Wider Earth, the story of Charles Darwin’s famous voyage on The Beagle. It played to packed houses at the Natural History Museum in London. Harry and Meghan turned up one night to see it, which was a big deal at the time.
Trish Wadley knows good work when she sees it and she was in the audience on opening night here in Brisbane feeling, I hope, pretty pleased with herself. She should be.
Although for the first twenty minutes I wasn’t sure it was working.
It is set in Strayed’s shambolic home and she is doing her advice column on a laptop in the midst of domestic mayhem. The letter writers – there are three – ask the questions, often serious or heartbreaking ones and an interplay is set up between those questions and Sugar’s answers, answers which increasingly draw on her own emotions and experiences.
Letter writer #1 is Stephen Geronimos, Letter Writer #2 is Sepi Burgiani and Letter Writer #3 is Nic OPrior making his debut with Queensland Theatre. They are all terrific and Lee Lewis cleverly choreographs the play so that they move around the set asking their questions while Sugar boils the kettle, does the washing and attends to her answers.
It becomes a dance of sorts and after a while it just clicks and you find yourself becoming drawn into their lives and stories.
McElhinney is comical and serious and very natural in the role, utterly believable and although Srayed started her advice column journey as “a lark” it won her multitudes of fans for her intimate, frank and empathetic responses. At the end she reveals herself as Sugar.
Tiny Beautiful Things was an off-Broadway smash hit when it debuted in 2016. It has recently been adapted into a streaming TV show too. So, actually, I could be watching it on TV?
Oh, but I’d much rather sit in the Bille Brown Theatre watching it live. It’s an intense 85 minutes of theatre that fills you up and sends you off into the night thinking you could easily watch it again.
And maybe on TV too.
Tiny Beautiful Things is on at the Bille Brown Theatre, South Brisbane, until July 8