Pollock’s allegorical virus imitates life 

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Holly Ross as Poppy. Photo: Lightbulb Studio.

IT’S an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and Canberra Youth Theatre seems to have been unusually blessed by the misfortunes of 2020 as it approaches its next production.

Katie Pollock’s play “Normal” had already been scheduled for production in May and the cast had enjoyed one session together before corporate health orders struck, but director Luke Rogers remained optimistic and now they’re opening on October 22.

It didn’t look promising at first and after some Zooming, which one cast member describes as “horrendous”, they’ve been together in person since August.

Meantime, the theatrical gods smiled on the company when the Canberra Theatre offered to house the show on the main stage of the Playhouse.

“They are looking after us very well,” Rogers says in understatement, explaining that this is not only the realisation of his dream of bringing the company to wider public attention but also an opportunity for Canberrans to see young emerging professionals aged between 19 and 25.

The other stroke of serendipity is that Pollock’s play is about an unseen, unknown virus and how the subsequent hysteria tears a town apart.

Pollock’s script was written long before the virus was even thought of, so it’s a case of happenstance.

“Of course I had no idea when I wrote the play that the idea of things going viral would be quite so relevant right now. It really does speak to how connected we all are, and how much we rely on each other as we move through the world,” the playwright says.

Director Luke Rogers (left), with cast members. Photo: Helen Musa.

Rogers chuckles as he considers the timeliness of the theme and the publicity that might accompany it but says, “It’s a universal theme and what interests me in it is people having agency over their own bodies, the virus is an allegory”. 

To that end he has billed the play as “an urban detective story in which the investigator is a teenage girl and the body is her own”.

It has an all-female cast of highly theatrical characters and a clear, linear plot which is likely to be comprehensible to the average theatregoer.

Briefly, Holly Ross plays Poppy, who falls victim to a mysterious illness characterised by a twitch that spreads through her body. Soon others follow, like Poppy’s “friend-ish” Sasha, played by McKenzie Battye-Smith, and Sky, Poppy’s real best friend, played by Elektra Spencer.

If you think you’ve heard this story before, the play is based on a true story where, during 2011 in the town of Le Roy, New York, a handful of teenage girls suddenly developed symptoms that looked like Tourette’s syndrome.

As the play’s plot thickens, the town is seized by fear, leading to an outbreak of vilification and prejudice also seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

All but Ross as Poppy, double and triple as adults and teenagers, creating tension in a blink of an eye. 

Lucy Porter, Sasha’s mother, played by Jemma Collins, is a malicious character (“wonderful to play”), who pressures her daughter into thinking the virus is an act of God. Collins also plays Ms Holt, the school principal, sure the condition is caused by toxins in the soil.

Sheila Harrington the psychiatrist (Spencer), is one of the only stable characters in Poppy’s life. 

“She is the one who can remind Poppy of who she is,” Rogers notes.

In complete contrast is Shop Girl, also played by Jemma Collins, who works in the local fashion store and who has no part in the hysteria.

Battye-Smith comments that class is another factor in the play, with Poppy and her mum Heather, whom she plays, from different classes.

Class issues happen a lot in Canberra, the actors say, so that even at Canberra Youth Theatre, working-class kids are intertwined with middle-class kids, and it’s the same in school.

So is “Normal” about Canberra? Well that wasn’t Pollock’s intention, although she lived and wrote here for many years. Rogers thinks it’s set in a small regional city in NSW. 

“This is a work that would sit well in the Canberra Theatre Centre’s ‘Collected Works’ season,” Rogers says. “It’s important for the parents of teen women, important for people in their late teens and early 20s and a definitive analysis of the way young women are repressed… It’s a very complex 80 minutes.”

“Normal”, The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, bookings at canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700. Suitable for ages 15+ or years 9-12 for schools.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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