Softly, Surely | subtlenuance

In an unnamed city, a group of strangers, acquaintances, and family members cross paths again and again without realising. They’re all struggling to find peace and purpose in their lives whether they have years stretching out before them or the end looms on the horizon. But they share one common coping mechanism: song.

A woman (Claudia Shnier) getting a routine pap smear is still grieving the loss of her mother ten years on, while her gynaecologist (Yannick Lawry) keeps trying to outrun the approaching death of his own mother (Abi Rayment) after a recent stroke. He has adequate support, even if he doesn’t acknowledge it, from his wife (Zoe Crawford) and a regular carer (Rosie Meader), who is doing her best while biding her time before her acting career takes off. Even while their desires for life seem clear to themselves, each of the characters in Daniela Giorgi and Paul Gilchrist’s script have a hard time communicating them with those around them. Instead, they turn to songs; from Ukrainian folk songs to Italian classics to songs of desire, the music is bound up in the emotions they can’t let out on their own.

Structured as short vignettes through which the majority of the characters were afforded direct-to-audience monologues, Softly, Surely offered brief glimpses into a range of characters’ lives and the fleeting ways in which they overlapped. As the director, Gilchrist focused on the humour of some of the characters’ circumstances like the inherent squeamishness of the gynaecologist’s office or the naive optimism of Meader’s aspiring actor. But underneath each scene was a harsher solemnity from the threat of a missed cancer diagnosis to elder neglect to the sharp and unpleasant breakdown of the marriage between Crawford and Lawry’s characters. Even amongst the lighter moments, this tone permeated and left little room for hope in these characters’ futures.

The performances were consistent as the actors grappled with the sparse script in an attempt to flesh out a fuller backstory occurring around the edges of the stage. Both Crawford and Shnier endeared audiences with their comic timing and mixed sunshine/rainclouds outlooks. Rayment was a stand-out for her moving monologue where her character was able to shed the disabling effects of her stroke to speak her mind freely. It recalled a production in the same theatre from 2021, Yielding, which similarly explored the impacts of disability and loss of communication on a woman and her family connections. The contrast between the quiet, resigned Rayment and the bubbly, energetic, and often insensitive Meader was poignant and undoubtedly spoke to many audience members’ fears of ageing and disability.

The through-line of the production of the power of music to bring healing and connection was largely conveyed through choral work by the performers in scene transitions and in one scene when Crawford and Shnier coincidentally sit next to each other at a local concert. The connection between the music and the narrative arc was tangential at best and seemed cemented with any explicit significance in only Crawford and Shnier’s stories. With more time spent with the characters in dialogue, the apt positioning of song as a conduit for feeling and communication could have been more affectingly conveyed.

Music is an enduring art form that people turn to in moments of individual importance as well as for anthems for much larger social experiences (anyone else remember the celebrity “Imagine” cover in early 2020?) but Softly, Surely struggled to find a unique and specific vessel for this message in these brief vignettes.

Softly, Surely ran at Flight Path Theatre from September 6th – 10th as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival

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