Set in 1889 post gold-fever Alaska, Frances Harmon, once star actress and now post-stroke invalid, lives with long-term friend and partner May along with fatherless daughter T-Belle in a ramshackle cabin holding onto the past when they need to accept their present and step into their future. All this is compounded by the fact that May has ‘done a deal’ with the local theatre producer to give her beloved Frances one last chance to perform. May has given the family gold reserve as deposit to make a dream come true; a dream that will never happen. Ultimately T-Belle undertakes the role and the contract is forfeited and so are their dreams.
In a simply woven tale of desire, family loyalties, honour and loneliness, Karen Ardiff attempts to capture the isolation of women fending for themselves in a male dominated world and the brutality of that environment. Real time action is interwoven with less successful flashbacks to a supposed heyday.
It is the real time playing that the story moves along rather tenderly and interestingly. However, the flash backs, when Frances launches from her wheel chair to paint a picture of a star of the theatre do we feel the brakes really push on hard. The arc and narrative is stifled by the unnecessary theatricality and amounts to a disjointed and somewhat cumbersome piece of writing. The power of the piece would be in the moment, dealing with the past. The past in the fore really muddies the water from a storytelling point of view. It is the imagination of the audience we should be tapping into, evoking the ‘once was’ to the ‘now is’!
Geraldine Alexander (May) has a powerful strength in her timidity, wracked with anguish and, for the main, desperate to give her love one final curtain. Super in her detailing but never really blossoms or self-empowers. Angeline Ball plays the invalided stage star with a touching reality and scary consciousness, but her flashbacks only serve to reveal the flaws in the play and detract from the tragedy of the moment. T-Bell, played by a vivacious Kathy Rose O’Brien is nicely detailed yet somewhat obviously drawn. And, finally, the loud whore, Nelly, charged to impersonate our past star, performed as though she lives her life in Burlesque, is grotesquely characterized by an energetic performance from Natasha Starkey.
Russell Bolam, director, tries valiantly to give a spark to a rather domestic and uneven text with a super stage design from Natasha Piper, beautifully lit by Katherine Williams along with a superb sound design from George Dennis. However, even with the excellent creative team and some beautifully nuanced moments in performances it is the play, the story itself, which really never takes off.
It is like a boiler with the pilot light on. Its buttons are never pressed, so it never sparks and never takes off.