The Women was a highly successful play and film in the 1930s. Mixed Company shows that Clare Boothe Luce’s satire about catty New York socialites with too much time on their hands still manages to get the sharp end of its claws pretty close to the bone. And it does so in a stylish production that sparkles with witty exchanges from the pen of an author who knew her way around an epigram just as well as the likes of Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde.
Creartive’s Art Deco style printed program sets the scene. The advertisements for cosmetics that it reproduces from the 1930s are, sadly, still all too topical, and the biographical notes come with a nice twist: each of the all-female cast offers her favourite quote, in a tacit bit of lid dipping to Luce’s talents in this area. The play itself has a wonderful range of roles for women. Between them, the 14 actors play 35 parts, up and down the social scale, and covering several ages and stages of womanhood. Their reflections on ageing, youth and beauty show that these themes are hardy perennials, and mirror the insecurities of women as clearly now as they did then. Which is not to say that only women will find this play entertaining. The man behind me spoke for the audience as a whole with his comment, in between laughs, that “this is excellent”.
Under Simone de Haas’ direction, the actors have pulled out all stops to make this set of shallow New Yorkers come alive. There are a number of central roles, played almost to perfection (barring a very few fluffed lines on opening night). Paulene Campton is the too-good wife Mary; Janet Devlin the incorrigible gossip Sylvia. Laura Wilde who has moved forward in time from her recent performance as Henry James’ emotionally repressed Heiress plays the more outspoken but still repressed housewife Edith (who keeps her place by turning a blind eye). Geraldine Chaplin-lookalike Julie Cotterell is the naïve Peggy, Debra Chalmers the over-the-top, French-spouting Countess perpetually looking for love along the champ d’amour, while Bree Hawkins is Jean Harlowesque vamp and bitch goddess, Crystal Allen.
The rest of the actors Tracy Ollington, Susan Stenlake, Rachel Nowitzke, Elspeth Peake, Xanthe Beesley, Justine Campbell, Anke Willems and Adrienne Morgan get to play all the other roles, which means that for the most part they demonstrate a dazzling capacity to shift in and out of character without missing a beat. Of all those roles, the only one that didn’t quite gel was that of Little Mary, showing how difficult it is for an adult to put over a gollywog-clutching young child, especially when in some positions she is looking over her mother.
What the actors must have seen as a great bonus in this production is what the women in the audience would have given their eye teeth for: the opportunity to wear some truly gorgeous clothes. Remarkably, almost all of the many elegant copies of styles that constituted a stunning parade of ’30s fashions were made by de Haas, wearing her other hat of costume designer and constructer, and they are all elegantly monochromatic, to match the stage settings. With everything else so flawless, the use of a messy curtain as the exit from stage left was a bit puzzling.
Overall, Mixed Company’s production of The Women is an absolute delight in every way, and shows once again that the company is one of Brisbane’s relatively unsung treasures. It is, clearly, run by dedicated artists whose signal success in meeting its goal of “comedy entertainment in an atmosphere of creative excellence” means that Brisbanites have yet another opportunity of loosing themselves in a laughter-filled evening at a time when there is little to laugh about in the world around us.