Lottie, The Musical

(Villanova Players)


Book and lyrics by Katy Forde, music by Aleathea Monsour

Villanova Players at The Theatre, Morningside Campus of TAFE, Clearview Terrace, Morningside

Amateur production

“Ninety-eight percent of the entertainment Australians see comes from America. But not tonight.”

So says one of the cast in the final summary-scene of Lottie, the Musical . If that were the only thing that this new all-Australian musical had going for it, it would be a strong enough recommendation in itself, but this sparkling piece of musical theatre offers much more than just patriotism and cultural pride.

From its passionate re-telling of the story of little-known early actor and director Lottie Lyell to its enchanting musical score, Lottie, the musical deserves to take its place immediately in the pantheon of great Australian musicals.

Not only does it add substantially to our knowledge of Australian theatrical history and the development of the film industry in the early 20th century, it contributes another chapter to the untold story of those women trail-blazers who, as Kate Grenville points outs succinctly in her novel Joan’s Story, made it possible for the men in their lives to achieve renown, through their contributions of talent, support and practical help. Like so many women of her time Lottie, who was the brains behind the dynamic Photo Play studios of Raymond Longford, was his creative partner as well as the love of his life, but like most Edwardian women she stayed in the background and let her man take the credit.

Where would our modern-day Gillian Wears and Jane Campions be without the ground-breaking work of people like this sharp-witted woman? Lottie is one of our feminist foremothers, and this musical is her fitting and long-overdue tribute. She fought against the strictures of pre-World War I society, where respectable women were supposed to keep out of the limelight; she persuaded her socially-conservative mother to accept her life in the film industry; and she lived, although not openly, with a married man, while still retaining her dignity and integrity. Ground-breaking stuff indeed.

Lottie, the Musical has a straightforward linear narrative, from Lottie’s “discovery” at the age of 18 by Raymond Longford, a trusted friend of her father, to her simple and very moving death just days before Langford’s divorce from his long-estranged wife came through.

The action moves from family drawing room to film shooting in the outback, to the wharves of Sydney to cinema foyers and a sanatorium for consumptives: and the multi-skilled cast play roles as disparate as wharfies, Sydney low-life, second-rate actors and entrepreneurs. As in all good musicals, they break into song wherever it seems appropriate (or sometimes not), and Aleathea Monsour’s score, with tunes eminently hummable, has just enough of a post-modern discordant touch to make it thoroughly contemporary rather than derivative.

There’s enough wit in the book and lyrics, too, to echo the kind of woman Lottie Lyell was – or at least, how she is seen through Katy Forde’s eyes. Quiet and superficially polite, as befits the times, the script contains little barbed comments subtle enough to be missed by the other characters in the play, but modern enough to be picked up by an observant audience, and the gentle subversion of the script is in itself another form of tribute to Lottie.

Because this is a low-budget production, like all amateur theatre, sets have to be versatile, so Ann Monsour has developed a series of tall triangular bricks with different backdrops, which when turned they act like those three-dimensional children’s puzzles. It’s an effective way of dealing with the many scene changes – I counted at least 11 – as it doesn’t slow the action down, although I still think that the play needs cutting, as three hours is far too long. The production does smack a bit of self-indulgence, almost as if Michael Forde, Katy’s father, who directs it, didn’t quite have the heart to be as ruthless as he should have been.

The production is quite a family affair – there are Fordes (Katy’s mother Margery makes a welcome return to the stage as Lottie’s mother), the Monsours (Aleathea not only wrote the script, but plays Lottie herself, while other members of the family feature as actors, designers, set engineers, equipment designers or musicians in the live band), while the surname Liddy appears more than once.

The close-knit cast and creative team have worked on this production over many months, and have developed a strong sense of community, which displays, in director Michael Forde’s words, “no egos, just talent and dedication”.

For a new play, therefore, this is a formidable effort with a commensurate effect, and with some polishing and cutting of the script, and a full professional production, it could well become one of Australia’s top theatrical musicals. It’s small enough in scope to be cherished as a tiny piece of history (unlike the ill-fated Australia, the Musical of two decades ago, which failed because it tried to do too much), but in its sub-text of pride in what we can do as Australians, as a small nation battling against the encroachments of overseas interest, it has enormous resonance for today.

Katy Forde and Aleathea Monsour want to write a play a year until they’re dead. Let’s hope, for all our sakes, that they survive longer than their hapless heroine, who died of tuberculosis at the age of only 35.

Directed by Michael Forde

Playing Thursday – Saturdays at 8pm until Saturday 17 December 2005 (matinees Saturday 11 and 17 at 2pm)

Duration: 3 hours including a 20 minute interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 8th December 2005)