Operatic in its intensity at times, Kip Williams’ production brings cinematic qualities to Patrick White’s surreally tilted portrait of a woman in social freefall.
Sarah Peirse, meanwhile, brings White’s Miss Docker to vivid life in a remarkable performance.
The Sydney Theatre Company’s A Cheery Soul is a spare production in terms of the physical elements on stage. In Act I, designer Elizabeth Gadsby conjures a patch of post-war suburban Australia from a doorway flat, some period furnishings, a Hills Hoist and a stand of eerily well-ordered tomato plants.
This is the home of Mr and Mrs Custance (Anita Hegh and Anthony Taufa), who unwisely give in to a charitable impulse and welcome in Christian busybody Miss Docker.
It’s an arrangement not destined to last for long. Miss Docker’s abrasive personality and toxic judgments on her hosts see her quickly shunted on to the Sundown Home for Old People. It’s here that White begins to feed in the surreal elements – a sinister chorus of old ladies being the main one – that make this play so distinctive and, for many, so difficult.
Working on concentric stage revolves, Williams’ arrangement of entrances and exits, people and objects is frequently entrancing. Set to Clemence Williams’ filmic score, scene transitions have a giddy-making quality to them. Video projections (live and pre-recorded, designed by David Bergman) loom over the action. The effect is distracting initially but its impact is considerable after interval, when Miss Docker’s tireless sense of mission (not to mention her lawn-mowing) gets under the thin skin of the tongued-tied Reverend Wakeman (Brandon McClelland).
Eleven actors are kept busy playing multiple roles. Some are extremely effective (Hegh as the high-strung Mrs Custance; Nikki Shiels as the passionate Mrs Wakeman; Tara Morice as Mrs Lillie). Others tend toward broad type than true character, which makes a mixed bag of the elderly ladies of the Sundown Home.
Peirse, however, is magnetic throughout. Light on her feet and moving constantly, her Miss Docker exhibits a kind of fossilised girlishness that disarms and repulses in the same moment.
The atmosphere she helps generate in the final scene, where Docker’s banishment – sealed on a lonely road with a stream of piss from a swaggie’s dog – is deliciously complex.