This review comes from Night Writes guest reviewer Josephine Lee
Wayside Bride is a new Australian play that celebrates the heartaches and beauty of Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross. Around 2016, the playwright Alana Valentine put a call out for stories of people who were married there and, over the years of interviewing, listening and writing, she has created this play. With a mix of verbatim storytelling and time travel, she shines a spotlight on the importance of community and social work in preserving this remarkable piece of Australian history.
Instead of a simple presentation of interviews, Valentine took the audience on a wild journey as she sneakily inserted herself into her own play and time travelled to the 1970s, embodying her mother’s persona to meet Reverend Ted Noffs, the founder of the chapel, in which her mother was married. Along the way, she met the many vibrant and colourful characters who were wedded or involved in the chapel in some way. Hannah Goodwin and Eamon Flack’s direction staged these stories in various ways, which were sometimes presented as a conversation with Valentine on chairs or a soliloquy to the audience. But there was always the feeling that we, the audience, were eavesdropping, listening, like a group of people cuddling around a campfire to listen and feel the speakers’ stories. This was particularly accentuated by Michael Hankin’s naturalistic set design where a large circle was painted in the middle of an old community hall, which included a jukebox, a humble coffee station, and a large stained white church billboard that had an awkward “WELCOME” on it. This circle, where most of the Wayside conversations and monologues happened, beautifully switched between the metaphor of institutionalism, unity, and communal storytelling. Damien Cooper’s lighting design and Alyx Dennison’s sound design complemented it by creating various worlds as the play traveled from the Wayside Chapel to a gay bar to other places and was quintessential in lifting the intimate and surrealistic quality of the play, especially through its wibbly-wobbly passage of time. Additionally, Ella Butler’s naturalistic and sometimes magical costumes, such as the nostalgic 1970s retro fashion, a magical sparkling queer coat, and Valentine’s mother’s black dress were delights for the eyes. However, there were times where a Wayside story or interview just jutted out of the story, and there were inconsistencies in time as sometimes you weren’t sure whether a moment was happening in present day or the 1970s.
But the stories were wonderfully brought to life by the tremendous performances of the actors, with most of them switching between various characters. In particular, Marco Chiappi, Rebecca Massey, Sandy Greenwood, Angeline Penrith, Rashidi Edward, and Arkia Ashraf should be commended for the wide range of characters they embodied with such control of comedy, timing, joy, and heartache. Emily Goddard beautifully captured Valentine’s bright-eyed curiosity and determination to discover the world of Wayside Chapel. In his portrayal of the bubbly and open-minded Methodist minister Ted Noffs, Brandon McClelland nicely balanced the jolly and headstrong Aussie blokey-ness with the fatigue and heartache of a man who wants to help everyone despite being pushed back by a corrupted and cold-hearted society. Sacha Horler played Valentine’s honest mother and Margaret Noffs, Ted’s formidable wife, with control, especially with Margaret’s hilarious bursts of frustration and unswaying loyalty and love. But notable standouts for me were Maggie Blimco’s magical, regal, and soulful performance as a bride and Penrith’s wonderful balance of raunchy, hilarious, and over-the-top wildness and soul-shattering heartbreak in her characters.
Despite the time hiccups in the narrative, I am very happy that this remarkable and heartwarming piece of Australian history has been preserved in this timely play. And, as someone from the quaint and conservative suburbs who has only been recently exposed to the notorious Kings Cross, it has opened my eyes to the beauty and struggles of such a unique place.
Wayside Bride is running at Belvoir from April 2nd – May 29th as part of Belvoir’s Repertory Season alongside Light Shining in Buckinghamshire
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