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FALLS WELL SHORT OF ITS POTENTIAL

Print Version

Auckland Fringe 2013
DOLLY MIXTURE
Written and performed by Yvette Parsons and Thomas Sainsbury
presented by Pandora Productions

at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 21 Feb 2013 to 23 Feb 2013

Reviewed by John Smythe, 9 Oct 2013


The horror comedy that is Yvette Parsons' and Thomas Sainsbury's Dolly Mixture is a variation on the ‘Grande Guignol' genre, which originated in Paris in the late 19th century and has gone through a range of permutations within various cultures (the most crass being cinema's ‘splatter film' genre).

Oscar Méténier's théâtre salon drew on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and their chief playwright, André de Lorde, nicknamed ‘the Prince of Terror', is said to have “preferred psychological suspense to gore, though he was not averse to the eye-gougings and acid baths that were popular features of the genre.”[1] 

Parsons and Sainsbury are more inclined to the sensationalism of bodily secretions and the attendant sexual and scatological comedy, though blood and the odd cracked cranium – not to mention a nail in the nose – do play their parts.   

While ‘shock value' has always been a key ingredient, so too has the necessity to seduce the audience into a willing suspension of disbelief, if the shock, the horror – and the comedy, as a means of release from the shock/horror – are to be truly felt. And this is where Dolly Mixture falls well short of its potential, for want of an astute director's ‘outside eye', in my opinion. (There is no director credited for this production, although one Timothy Blake was ‘assistant director' for the original season in last year's Auckland Fringe.)

Yvette Parsons' set design, festooned with countless dolls, is a visual triumph and her extreme costume designs also add colour and texture, if not subtlety.

In his characteristic deadpan monotone, the purple-suited Thomas Sainsbury plays ‘homestay' tenant Crispin Merriweather, who seems to be the sole survivor of a series of fishing accidents afflicting his family and girlfriend. Friendless, jobless and a virgin, he is ripe for the plucking.

The home owner and doll collector, Beverley Beavington, is likewise alone, having lost her about-to-be-a-bride daughter, Verity, to a tragic accident and her husband to the “whore” he has run off with. Described in publicity as “demented”, Parsons – who has proved her capacity to play broad comedy grounded in truth with her profoundly poignant Silent Night – plays the ‘crazy lady' to the hilt, displaying silly walks and bursting into raucous song apropos of nothing other than being theatrical. Thus Beverly's driving concerns and motivations are constantly eclipsed by irrelevant behaviour.

Add a few theatrical indulgences from Sainsbury, and what could be a wonderfully horrific comedy, rooted in psychological truths we can all relate to despite the extremities to which they are taken here, hijacks itself with wacky theatrical shock games pitched, it seems, at an audience of equally indulgent fans who like to see their favourite entertainers being really outrageous on stage.

Given the mention in publicity of “a little satanic ritual” and the crediting on the programme of Sarah Houbolt as Verity Beavington, it is not really a spoiler to reveal that the dead daughter returns – though I won't reveal how this is done. And Houbolt, for all the excesses Verity is prone to, does command credibility to great theatrical effect.

A good director could easily align Parsons and Sainsbury to the greater value of commanding our willing suspension of disbelief as the story unfolds. Both have shown in their past work – of which there has been much in recent years – that they are more than equal to packing a more powerful dramatic and comic wallop, while maintaining their trademark styles. 

[1] The Cambridge Guide to Theatre, 1995 edition, Cambridge University Press, p439.
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See also reviews by:
 Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);
 Heidi North-Bailey
 James Wenley (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);
 Jan Maree

Comments

Emma White posted 10 Oct 2013, 12:18 PM
 

John, this is one of example of where your reviewing perspective is hemmed in, I feel, by being overly-cerebral and very history-facing.

No disrespect, and to be clear I have no expectation that you should give unanimously positive reviews, but you seem very closed off to the sensory in the way you view and review theatre. For instance here you reference a genre (originating in the 1800s!) that bears little relevance or meaning to many/most people reading your review. Then it seems to me like you measure this show against the prescriptions of (a) this ancient genre and (b) your own artistic priorities i.e. when you speak of the "neccessity" to suspend the audience's disbelief. Neccessary why / to what end / for whom?

When I mention the sensory, that's important. I don't think it would make your reviews weak or overly-personal at all if you mentioned how something you saw actually made you feel. For a show like this, this is key, I think. Even if you felt nothing, say that. But I would hazard a guess, judging by the audience on the night I went, you'd be in the minority. My own feelings included: Shock / horror / wanting to spew / crying with laughter / bemusement / admiration. 

Its not often I go to the theatre and something is genuinely bold and fearless. Who cares if it didn't follow the script or some lofty genre - it was bizarre, interesting, playful, fun and original - these are qualities you yourself often seem to undervalue in your blind insistance on more traditional play-writing or direction.

John Smythe posted 11 Oct 2013, 10:40 AM
 

Thank you for your feedback, Emma. To begin at the end, your assertion that I bring a “blind insistance [sic] on more traditional play-writing or direction” to my work is unfair and, I suggest, unsubstantiated. I happily open all my senses to a theatrical experience (I'd soon tire of it if I didn't) and it's the feelings this produces which I ‘interrogate' when I set about writing a review: a process that necessarily requires engagement of the brain, for which I make no apology.

In this case, some of the over-the-top acting and ‘shock-horror' devices got in the way of my abandoning myself whole-heartedly to the sensory experience (the poo, for example, and the licking of fingers, distracted me into wondering what it was really made of, whereas I readily bought into the make-believe ectoplasm, blood and open wounds). This led me to check myself, afterwards, on the question of genre; to ensure I wasn't about to misrepresent a legitimate iteration of the venerable art of shock /horror /spectacle. And venerable it is!

Since you seem to feel that a genre “originating in the 1800s!” bears no relevance to today's audiences, it is perhaps just as well I didn't mention that Grande Guignol re-fashioned conventions that were popular when Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus (around 1590) and had a resurgence with the Jacobean Revenge Tragedy. As ever, “there is nothing new under the sun” even if “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (I do love a good paradox.)

Anyway, I found it fascinating that wherever I looked for commentary on variations on this genre, the importance of willing suspension of disbelief was reinforced in the quest for maximising the theatrical effect of it all. The key question is whether this also holds true for comedy horror; for a play that sends up the genre – and I think it does, because ‘truth' always plays a crucial part in generating a good laugh.

It's a fine balance, which I why I still feel – based on the performance I saw - that an outside eye (e.g. a director) could facilitate some tweaking of Dolly Mixture so it doesn't subvert itself and does reach its undoubted potential at every level.

Raewyn Alexander posted 21 Oct 2013, 12:43 PM
 

While I appreciate the theatre history background details you've provided re the style of the wonderful Dolly Mixture, and indeed a production may benefit from having a director even when the players are as experienced as these, I believe a number of vital details or aspects have been overlooked regarding this excellent play.

The issues of child abuse, exploitation, consumerism, selfishness and associated ills are all highlighted within the narrative of Dolly Mixture, and we're provided with a fine chance to see those behaviours as truly grotesque. The audience does not need to read between the lines, as we need to do so often in everyday life when confronted with this behaviour, (it may be hidden or disguised). To gasp, cry, laugh and scream as I did with my disbelief quite suspended, such a blessed relief. Theatre is a place where we may react to life as we may not elsewhere, therefore the themes and situations shown enter our consciousness with a broader focus. The numb state of denial so many live with is surely allieviated by art like this, which can only be good for people. 

I screamed for some time at the end without even realising I was doing so. A fabulous experience in a theatre, to be so drawn into the action. This play makes us feel and react, perhaps in ways we dare not elsewhere. Why not? That's such an important question.

Also, isn't the elephant in the room always funding, with productions like these? Daring, innovative and highly original work perhaps gets side-lined too often due to a lack of funds to hire a director, or to provide a stunning set or costumes. It is a salient point that when a theatre piece has substantial financial backing then a director is more likely to be employed. That this play appears so gloriously idiosyncratic and with such a polished look, is something that needs to be paid tribute to. The hard work that goes into productions like this deserves recognition. The help from friends, fans, family, the extra organisation, the clever means of collecting props with donations, this kind of thing matters, it keeps art alive and diverse in a small country like ours.

Personally, I am delighted that these people continue to produce such thought-provoking, original and exciting work based around in-depth understanding of some appalling injustices and behaviours, which require examination and strong narratives. The chaos which surrounds abuse and prejudice also protects the perpetrators, day-to-day. Stories like Dolly Mixture open a view to human-made hell, a way to understand and perhaps act then in ways to minimise the effects of ill manners, deadly sins and inhumanity.

There is a reason these actors and writers have a strong fan-base, growing all the time. In a country where so often the art is diluted or santitised by some, to make it more palatable for our perceived delicate sensibilities, it's refreshing and frankly, refreshingly intellectually stimulating to see complex, detailed, well-acted and beautifully presented, (if I can say 'beautiful' for something so startling), theatre that's blatantly turning a hard eye on our worst and most peculiar tales. Dolly Mixture appeared to me as a triumph and a necessary story which more people deserve to see.