Friday, 12 August 2016

Letters to Lindy, Merrigong Theatre Company, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

"There are three things that have divided Australia: Conscription, Whitlam, and Lindy Chamberlain". Conscription drives one of the New Wave of Australian Playwriting's first great plays, "The Legend of King O'Malley", and Whitlam drives a whole heap of the rest of that New Wave. But Lindy Chamberlain hasn't really had much of a theatre presence - there was an opera in 2002 but otherwise the space is clear for a good-quality piece of theatre for an enduringly controversial story.

Alana Valentine's telling uses, as the title suggests, the thousands of letters sent to Chamberlain since the controversial death of her daughter in 1980. It keeps the setting very clearly domestic (James Browne's set is a simple lounge-and-dining-room-setup, with adaptations largely through lighting and staging to take us to other locations) and has Lindy as our prime viewpiont, with most commentary coming from the letters. Jeanette Cronin holds the stage as Lindy with aplomb - with multiple costume and wig changes to cover the era (from the iconic big-bob to her modern smart-clipped hair). It is in some ways a very folksy evening, and offers a lot of light and shade in telling the story - Lindy is eminently pragmatic and common-sense about what happened to her and we're not subjected to two-odd hours of angst so much as a story with an undercurrent of pain that sneaks through. The focus so tight on Lindy does occasionally mean we get the sense other elements don't get much traction (her husband Michael, for instance, is virtually invisible in this version), but what it loses in breadth it gains in individual empathy.

The remaining ensemble play various letter writers and other figures, crossing age-ranges and genders with aplomb.  Glenn Hazeldine maybe does the greatest range (slipping touchingly into the role of Lindy's youngest son, Aiden) but Phillip Hinton and Jane Phegan match well in various roles.

This is engaging, intriguing theatre that captures the heart and the mind and is worthy of a watch.

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