Drawing on hours of face-to-face interviews with her subject, writer-director Priscilla Jackman’s recounting of Catherine McGregor’s life story to date is a spare, fast-moving work of theatre blending didactic purpose with heartfelt tribute.
Opening in a hospital room just prior to her gender reassignment surgery, McGregor’s life is fanned out in a series of scenes spanning a childhood in Toowoomba in the 1950s, military training at Duntroon in the 1970s, time spent as a policy advisor and speech writer for both sides politics, and more recently, her roles of cricket commentator, author and walking controversy.
It’s a radically simple production in some ways, with Jackman deploying a large curtain on a circular rail (a Michael Scott-Mitchell design) to sweep scenes on and off and a five-strong ensemble of actors forming a choreographed chorus around the show’s relatively still point – Heather Mitchell, resplendent in a white Carla Zampatti pantsuit.
Addressing the audience directly for the greater part of the show, Mitchell’s performance is commanding and graceful by turns.
Employing a cis actor to play a trans character will spark debate, perhaps, but what can’t be argued against is Mitchell’s excellence in the role. McGregor’s moments of fear, sadness, doubt, despair and elation are made transparently available to the audience.
The depth of field in McGregor’s voice isn’t always shared by other figures in the story. Ayla Holdom (voiced by Georgina Symes), the British helicopter pilot who transitioned gender after a distinguished career in the military, seems synthetic by comparison. Indian cricket icon Rahul Dravid, despite Nicholas Brown’s best efforts, comes across like a plaster saint. Ashley Lyons is very effective as McGregor’s raging, alcoholic younger self, however.
The chronological structure imparts a steady tread to the show that can seem plodding at times, and some elements of the ensemble’s physical business looks like filler.
That said, McGregor’s story is a powerful one, and this attempt to translate her embodied complexity for the stage is both commendable and important.