Two sisters in Sydney’s western suburbs grow up together, teaching each other about how to love themselves, connect with others, and understand the world around them. After a medical scare, older sister Christa hatches the perfect plan to help younger Jamie overcome her mental health issues and hermit-like lifestyle but, like a lot of sibling interactions, she realises she’s gone much too far. This debut production for Pip & Han Inc. shows us how love can steer you so wrong.
The set-up is simple: sisters Christa (Tasha O’Brien) and Jamie (Alex Francis) have somewhat absent parents who leave them to entertain themselves, typical of 90s childhoods before personal screens became such a large part of our lives. They discuss their bodies, how they work and why, play video games or dance to music, and bully each other into performing menial tasks for the other. There’s gratuitous swearing and discussion of sex, which, while realistic, is quite aggressive on stage. The narrative is rocky, flashing backwards and forwards between their early adulthood and pivotal moments in childhood marked by Christa enlightening Jamie about an aspect of the world (periods, sex, self-harm) and the younger sister responding, “That’s the worst thing you’ve ever told me.” Returning to these moments is sweet and reinforces the partnership these sisters have developed between each other and against the world but it also becomes repetitive and disruptive of the overarching plot. It’s clear in many ways why these sisters are so close, but as their problems become more mature and serious, it would be stronger to see that reflected in their new bonding moments, as well.
These flashbacks, as they continue throughout the performance, are additionally confusing for maintaining the tension of Christa’s deception of Jamie. The overlapping story lines and both Christa’s and Jamie’s trips to the hospital for different life-threatening illnesses becomes convoluted and very difficult to follow. Instead of allowing the relationship to develop on stage along with the plot, the constant return to the past keeps the production stagnant on the same level and ultimately shallows out the depth of complexity that writer Pippa Ellams is attempting with this script. Especially considering how short each scene is, the audience isn’t allowed enough time with each conversation to consider the context and implications of each revelation. For example, Christa’s sexual relationship with her doctor is dropped into an argument completely out of the blue and, while there is an attempt to flesh out the reasons for this relationship and Christa’s self-image as a result of it, there is very little to connect this aspect of Christa to anything that’s happened in the show prior and it weakens her characterisation overall.
Without an opportunity for construction or build-up into Christa’s plot to deceive Jamie about her imminent death, the idea that a young mistress is able to convince a doctor to commit a crime and risk his license in order to lie to a patient and cure her undiagnosed mental health issues is completely unbelievable. The script needs a lot more than fond (and not-so-fond) childhood memories in order to build a context that could hold the weight of such an action as Christa undertakes. It’s not a plot line I would recommend abandoning because sibling deception is fascinating and can get out of hand very quickly (That’s Not Me, 2017, anyone?) but it needs a surrounding script that can do the idea justice.
The Carousel is a fun production. There is a lot of energy on stage and O’Brien and Francis have a playful dynamic that is easy and enjoyable to watch. There are frequent laugh-outloud moments and throwbacks to familiar childhood memories that’ll make you cringe in your seat. As a writing debut for Ellams and directorial debut for Hannah Goodwin, the two women have demonstrated they have some daring to bring to the Sydney stage. With more consideration of tension and a more economical use of stage time, there’s no reason the next Pip & Han Inc. production won’t be more substance than fluff.
The Carousel is running at Kings Cross Theatre from March 30th – 31st.