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BWW Review: RIPCORD at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

A complete joy to watch.

BWW Review: RIPCORD at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival CentreReviewed by Petra Schulenburg, Friday 27th November 2020.

Mitchell Butel, artistic director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia, selected Ripcord for the 2020 season as part of a vision to bring greater community diversity to the program, in this instance, that older South Australians should see themselves reflected on stage and hear their stories told. What he has succeeded in delivering is a delightful, often hilarious, and moving evening that will appeal to adult audiences of any age.

The action centres on the rivalry of two women who share a room in a senior living facility. A study in self-containment, all Abby wants is to be left alone. Having successfully repelled all other comers, Abby's latest roommate, Marilyn, stubbornly refuses to be offended or angered by Abby's blatant wish to have her gone.

Each is determined to outwit the other and, to gain the upper hand, they make a high-stake bet. Abby's precious privacy against the prime real estate bed by the sunny window. As the gloves come off it seems there are no limits to what each will do to win.

Ripcord was written by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, who has previously won a Pulitzer Prize for his play, Rabbit Hole. While always vastly entertaining, Ripcord is much more than just a situational comedy. There is a very human core to this story with which we can all identify and, as the action unfolds, we come to understand so much more about each character's history, and the joys and tragedies that have brought them to this place in their lives. We are also reminded of the transformational power of family and friends, mixed in with a more than healthy dose of competition.

The incomparable Nancye Hayes plays the role of Abby with great style, strength, and a razor-sharp acerbic wit. Abby is a prickly woman who keeps herself to herself and has no qualms in speaking her mind. Shrewd and resourceful, it seems that there is no line she will not cross to win this bet. In clumsier hands, it could be tempting to dislike Abby and write her off as purely selfish, but Hayes allows us to glimpse her soft underbelly so that we can understand what has brought Abby to this place in her life. Coupled with clever scripting, we delight in Abby, even at her worst, because we can see her in three dimensions.

Abby's nemesis, Marilyn, is played by the wonderful Carmel Johnson. Marilyn is the polar opposite of Abby. A big-hearted slob with a snorting laugh, guaranteed to annoy the hell out of her roommate. Johnson's Marilyn is a generous, brave, and resilient woman who opens her heart and her arms to everyone with warmth and humour. But Marilyn has her own cunning and competitive streak and, as each combatant crosses a new line in the battle, Johnson shows us this much more ruthless side of her.

All in all, it is a complete joy to watch these two consummate actors who are clearly enjoying themselves enormously.

Our two warring leads are wonderfully supported by a tight cast featuring Nathan Page, Chris Asimos, Jennifer Innes, and Ezra Juanta, each playing a number of different characters.

Almost unrecognisable in his other roles it was, however, as Abby's estranged son, that Nathan Page reminded us why he is such a star of Australian stage and screen. His presence in a pivotal scene with Nancye Hayes was riveting. Never has a trembling pot plant spoken such volumes about pain and the hope of redemption.

Chris Asimos plays Scotty, a member of the nursing and care staff at the home, who gets caught in Abby and Marilyn's crossfire. Asimos shows us a goofy, caring young man who has genuine affection and respect for the residents and, perhaps, Abby and Marilyn in particular.

Jennifer Innes plays Marilyn's daughter Colleen who, together with her husband Derek, played by Ezra Juanta, help Marilyn in her quest to win the bet. Whether it's a staged mugging or an actual kidnapping, nothing is too much trouble for this loyal duo of co-conspirators.

Director, Mitchell Butel, has brought together a top-shelf cast whom he has directed with a wonderful eye for detail, while clearly also leaving them the space to do what they know best. He has delivered a pacey, energetic, well-crafted evening in the theatre, while honouring every emotional nuance and sight gag for which the script calls.

The action of the play, while originally written to set in the US, could just as easily be unfolding in any residential retirement facility in Australia, so my only criticism, and it is a minor one, is that the play was performed with American accents, which was at times distracting and not strictly necessary, although perhaps contractually obligatory.

The action in this play takes place not only in Abby's hotly contested room in the nursing home but also in a number of external locations, including an ingenious skydiving sequence. Set designer, Ailsa Paterson, delivers, with the clever use of an enormous revolve. Her institutionalised retirement home décor is scarily evocative and supported perfectly by costumes designed by Enken Hagge and lighting designed by Gavin Norris. The backstage crew are also to be commended for their tight scene changes, some of which would require significant work to be undertaken quickly and quietly while action continues at the front of the stage. Well done to the entire creative team.

Resident sound designer/composer, Andrew Howard, has created wonderful effects for this production, especially in the scenes that take place outside of the nursing home. From haunted house, to garden, to plummeting through the clouds, his work takes the audience out of their chair in the darkened theatre and transports them with the actors from place to place.

Howard, together with director Butel, has also pulled together a cheeky mix of scene and tone-setting music. Designed to put and keep the COVID spaced and restricted audience in the mood, the soundtrack is more than just entertaining background music. Carefully chosen for style and lyrics, the music succeeds in conveying the Zeitgeist, history, and motives of each of the women, as well as setting the tone for the action of the play.

Devastatingly, for the cast and entire production team, the original opening of Ripcord was postponed due to COVID restrictions and lockdown. What a joy to Adelaide theatre goers that Mitchell Butel and his team are committed to extending the original season to allow them to bring this wonderful piece to the stage in whatever audience configuration the latest government restrictions will allow. Their hard work and determination are a testament to triumph in the face of adversity and what a crime it would have been if this play has not had a chance to get the audience it so richly deserves.

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From This Author Barry Lenny