Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️.5 (reviewed opening night 19 January)
Female strength, sexuality and identity takes centre stage in Chloe Lethlean Higson’s groundbreaking new work, The Strong Charmion. Higson is a recipient of the Katie Lee’s Fellowship Award which supports emerging young women in theatre to develop their creative careers. Opening night was a full house of sparkling talent of individuals and independent creatives across Sydney, and the 90-minute play finished with rapturous applause from the audience.
The Strong Charmion takes inspiration from the early form of circus, when adult entertainment was (and still is) considered socially lowbrow but captivating nonetheless. Lethlean Higson creates a character called Rosalie Whitewood, a strongwoman in the Frieze Family Circus touring Sydney in 1921 who is torn between the ideals of a boring but comfortable marriage and following her heart. It’s always interesting to find out if / when such people actually existed (Wiki has a fascinating entry on Laverie Vallee, stage name Charmion, a trapeze artist and strongwoman whom Thomas Edison captured doing a striptease performance). That video still exists and can be seen on the Wiki page.
The story created by Lethlean Higson, directed by Jess Ramsey and performed by an incredible quartet of actors (Gabrielle Bowen, Emily Crow, Niky Markovic and Alyssa Peters) has potential to pack a punch, and it does. The audience participation brings the scenario to life, as Whitewood unabashedly takes on her sanctimonious former lover, who, it seems, is disgusted by women who are too independent minded, too strong, too weak, too frail…never seeing woman as a complete whole, his only source of power is his businesslike reputation and having money to call the shots. Lethlean Higson layers the story with this flawed notion that money is the only source of ‘respectability’ and honours the integrity of her characters to exist on their own terms.
In terms of direction, stronger vocal delivery would have elevated the performances in the sound-challenged Flight Path Theatre (so named due to planes flying overhead at regular intervals). The backstories are necessary to create the context and environment that these characters exist in, but a little more force / drama is needed to colour the theatrical composition.
That said, Gabrielle Bowen shines as The Strong Charmion, creating a believable character that existed in a bygone era who was not afraid of her power, or men. Alyssa Peters as Juniper Treewick is nimble and funny as the nymphomaniac ticket seller on the cusp of having a lobotomy sanctioned by her terribly misguided mother (a heinous practice that afflicted many high spirited individuals, including JFK’s sister). Emily Crow as Kitty Livingstone delivers a sensitive performance as the emotionally-starved wife who fakes miscarriages to get her husband’s attention. Niky Markovic melds seamlessly in separate roles as the cold husband / circus owner / adoring stagehand fan, a nice transition of roles that any actor would kill for.
The staging and costumes crafted by Bella Saltearn creates the exciting world of the circus, with bales of hay intimating the stable-like conditions of performers-as-livestock (much in the same way contemporary performers find themselves sharing a tiny change room). Corsets, heeled boots, white frippery, and genteel suits creates the opposing tension of repression and sexual expression. Much of the exciting circus action takes place off stage, while the main stage (facing the audience) creates the ‘behind the scenes’ world of the characters as they grapple with their identity and perceived identity.
The timeline isn’t clear from the outset but does becomes a revelation towards the end of the play, when motivations are revealed. A little more script development could tighten this narrative to create a more compelling story from start to finish, coupled with more intense direction. As acting coaches often say “don’t hold back – always give more than you think you should.”
Overall, The Strong Charmion is an enjoyable theatrical experience, illuminating the historical and ongoing struggle for women to express their independence and desires in a morally-bound world full of contradictions and hypocrisy. It delivers an exciting fresh voice in contemporary theatre and celebrates the whole woman in every way she can be – strong, powerful, sexually confident, vulnerable, emotional and true to herself.
The Strong Charmion is playing at Flight Path Theatre until 27 January 2024. For tickets and showtimes, go to https://www.flightpaththeatre.org/whats-on/the-strong-charmion
Images: Clare Hawley