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Play with the drama going on behind the scenes

Liz St Clair Long in the role of retiring leading lady Lydia Martin… funny, imperious yet vulnerable. Photo: Eve Murray

Theatre/ “The Actress”. At Canberra Rep Theatre until May 18. Reviewed by ALANNA MACLEAN

Peter Quilter’s The Actress is one of those intriguing backstage plays where the audience is allowed a glimpse of a show in performance (thanks to Andrew Kay’s cunning set) and a lot more about what is going on behind the scenes.

In this case, the show going on is The Cherry Orchard and leading lady Lydia Martin (Liz St Clair Long) is giving her last performance before retiring to Switzerland with ageing fiancé the wonderfully doddering Charles (Saban Berrell). 

Her theatre dressing room also sees the comings and goings of her stroppy chain-smoking daughter Nicole (Kate Harris), her persistently charming ex husband (Rob de Fries). her pragmatic dresser Katherine (Sally Rynveld), her somewhat vulnerable theatre agent Harriet (Jane Ahlquist) and Margaret (Jazmin Skopal) the rather officious young assistant to the never seen director of the show. 

It’s not as good a backstage play as Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, where a veteran actor attempting King Lear is kept in some sort of line by his dresser, but director Aarne Neeme and his experienced cast bring much heart and soul and humour to the piece. There are even some serious glimpses of The Cherry Orchard in performance and that tale of loss has some parallels to what Lydia might be throwing away.

As leading lady Lydia, St Clair Long is funny, imperious yet vulnerable. Berrell’s Charles dodders very well and even shows a little backbone before all is done. Harris’ Nicole is full of world-weary attitude, but her support for her mother shines through. 

De Fries has a deal of fun as the ex husband. Skopal’s Margaret descends convincingly into temper loss at Lydia’s refusal to accept directorial notes. Rynveld has charm and authority as the dresser and Ahlquist throws on a funny temperament as the agent who sees her 10 per cent commission sliding away with her client’s retirement.

It’s certainly a play for those who enjoy shows about theatre behind the scenes. But whether someone as deeply involved with theatre as Lydia will find happiness among the lakes and mountains of Switzerland remains a moot point. 

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