Shortlisted for the 2012 Rodney Seaborn Playwriting Award and commissioned by Queensland Theatre Company (QTC), Elaine Acworth’s Gloria premiered at the Bille Brown Studio on 24 July with an all-Brisbane cast.
The touching story follows Gloria, who fled Australia in the 70’s to become a chanteuse in Europe. Now in her 50’s, Gloria returns to Australia to reconcile with the son she gave up 30 years before. Waking up in a hospital bed after suffering a stroke, Gloria is left with part-paralysis and memory loss. The nurse rings the only contact he can find in Gloria’s belongings – her abandoned son Ned, who up until now thought she was dead. The shocking news drops right into the middle of the quiet life Ned had built for his own family, wife Maggie and teenage son Justin, causing ripples that would change their lives forever.
Unable to question his recently deceased adoptive mother Rose about the past, the story unfolds in jigsaw pieces between trips to the hospital and finding clues in Rose’s belongings as they sort through and pack up her house.
Adding a unique layer to this story about adoption, memory, and reconciliation, is the use of song and screen projections as a way for Gloria to access her failing mind. Without anyone to coherently explain to Ned the course of events, he must piece together these fragments to rewrite the past and discover the real reason why Gloria left and what other truths Rose might have been keeping from him.
This is not a happy play but an intensely emotive story. I spent much of the sixty minutes with tears welling and must admit that I have avoided reliving these feelings for some days now to write this review. There is a warning sign before entering the theatre about strobe lighting and such, but it should also read, “tissues may be needed”. This is a deeply affecting play and highly relatable as it forces us to contemplate the unthinkable but inevitable loss of our own loved ones and the cruelty of memory loss, both for the sufferer and the people who care for them.
In the title role is Matilda Gold Award winner, Christen O’Leary again joins director David Bell in another tour de force performance akin to the highly successful End of the Rainbow, in which O’Leary played the tumultuous star Judy Garland; another diva in decline. O’Leary’s extraordinary grasp on the physical, musical, and emotional language of the character shows the work of a master at the highest echelon of the acting craft.
Joining O’Leary onstage is Steven Rooke as Gloria’s son Ned. Having come into the rehearsal period as a late replacement, Rooke did a great job fitting into the cast. Rooke always has a strong presence onstage and is enjoyable to watch. However, the role felt quite stifling for the actor capable of so much more; further light and shade would have greatly benefited Ned’s character arc.
Debuting with QTC is Naomi Price as Ned’s supportive wife. Better known as a music theatre/cabaret performer, it was nice to see Price in a pure acting role. Price also doubled as Ned’s adoptive mother Rose and was able to transition between the two characters with ease. Also making his QTC debut is young actor Elijah Wellsmore, who played Ned’s son with a lovely understated quality. His performance was pitched with just the right sentiment of a young man caught between being a loyal and obedient son and wanting to get to know more about his newfound grandmother. Rounding out the four-hander cast is Kevin Spink as the caring male nurse charged with the difficult task of looking after someone who drifts in and out of lucidity. Spink also easily slips between doubling as a couple of minor characters.
Much like Gloria’s fragmented mind, the set (designed by Bill Haycock) is aptly chaotic, with sections being reused as different locations and multimedia being projected on various screens around the set (and event the hospital bed). In amongst a bunch of scattered mirrors, screens, and toys, is a hospital bed, a room in Ned’s house with see-through walls and doors, which also act as the entrance to the hospital room, Rose’s attic above the room, a bulb-lit runway, and off to the left, a piano where composer Andrew McNaughton accompanies O’Leary for the musical numbers. Mention should be also made for David Walters’ lighting design, which was instrumental in focusing our attention in this purposely-disorderly environment.
A touching and engaging play (with songs), Gloria runs for sixty minutes without interval and is playing at The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio until August 16.