Each act offers something exciting and engaging but the two sometimes feel like parts of separate stories. In the first, Ally stages a Bed-In of sorts (an act of protest coined by John Lennon and Yoko Ono) with her friend Petra, determined not to leave until her life stops sucking, for reasons unknown. Five prolific wahine from New Zealand’s history (Katherine Mansfield, Kate Sheppard, Helen Hitchings, Heni Pore, and Akenehi Hei) sporadically cross into this time, each one related to a book they’re reading, joining them in a queen bed that looks awfully cramped as we learn about their time spent bound to bedrest. In the second, performers switch their historical figures for modern-day counterparts, Ally’s aunties, her mother, and another nurse. It is here, in the domestic drama of the second act, that we discover the hardship Ally is navigating and why she refuses to leave her bed. Her aunties desperately attempt to rouse her and bring the family together.
I struggle to see how the two acts connect; I feel I need more than the aunties and mothers being partial reflections of the historic figures the performers played. Act One seems to focus on self care, where Ally and Petra try to convince the hard-working historical figures the how important “me-time” is. The latter however, is more familial, more about how we come together in times of hardship to overcome it. It’s difficult to see how the play is about inheritance like the programme suggests, as beyond Ally inheriting her mother’s painting and her mother sharing books with her in the play’s conclusion, this theme doesn’t really come forward. However, the two themes that do, self care and family, don’t exist outside their own Act, exacerbating the disconnection.
This isn’t helped by how petulant the protagonist Ally comes across. It’s fine to have an unlikeable protagonist, but there’s little redeeming about her character and everything we need to help understand why she’s feeling and acting the way she is comes way too late. It’s not until Act Two that we find out why the Bed-In is happening and what Ally is dealing with, for example. Without much establishing context, we embark on a journey that’s difficult to connect with, one that’s difficult to care about at times when we don’t understand the person we’re journeying with. I needed to know more about Ally and her situation earlier to help follow everything along and tie both parts together.
There are these beautiful symbolic moments speckled throughout the play, which garner intrigue and are lovely to unfold. In Act One, the books are slammed shut, and one by one, the lights cut on the historic figures as they fade back into their literature. In Act Two, sheer curtains part as Ally stands on her bed, grasping a lone lavender, staring intently while claw-like trees emerge in eerie green lighting in the background; a flashback where Ally’s mum (Renée Sheridan) reads Mansfield to her has the other four historical figures reemerge, evoke a stanza, and embrace the pair on the bed in an image of sisterhood and togetherness. While these symbolic moments are beautiful, it’s not always clear what they’re symbolising. The reveal of the trees and Ally’s realisation is a stark contrast from the rest of the relatively realist-second act, yet I’m not quite sure what they represent. And when the Mansfield poem is recited by the historic figures, it’s a celebration of her and her work -- but I ponder why they all read from Mansfield, solely focussing on just one of the women.
It is in these symbolic moments where the show’s design cascades and shines. Lisa Maule’s lighting design, consisting of harsh greens and soft reds, refract and shimmer off the sheer curtains and hardwood surfaces of Tony De Goldi’s set design, and the booming crescendos of Ryan Prebble’s sound design amplify the mysticism. Kudos to the tech crew for dealing with some unfortunate opening night tech difficulties, comprising of a false start with the sound and lights, and flickering lights during some scenes.
The accolade Modern Girls in Bed holds is their fantastic performers. Amy Tarleton, my personal favourite of the night, is a nurturing, prim and proper, but fiercely determined Kate Sheppard, who uses her staunch teacher tone to persuade the girls one moment and joins in on their ‘actually’ barrage one moment before adopting a staunch ‘teacher tone’ to persuade them the next. In her shift to the hard-ass, hardworking, Green MP Aunty Cate, she trades the softer attitude of Kate Sheppard from something a lot harsher, a sort of ‘takes shit from no one’ approach as she stomps across the stage, arms often folded, mood often tested. Bronwyn Turei lumbers onto the stage as a heavily-pregnant Heni Pore, silencing Mansfield with her fluency in foreign languages when spoken to as though she’s ignorant. She returns as Aunty Jane in the second half, the voice of reason among the aunties, and the one who is able to speak to Ally with the most tact and care. Alex Lodge as Katherine Mansfield is flighty and pretentious; she glides around the room, proud yet slow and slouched recovering from her terrible cough-inducing illness. And as Aunty Lena, a struggling writing, Lodge is far more passive and nervous; she carries this weight of “when will my break come” in her lagged steps.
Williams and Lao, their roles of recent university students and friends-cum-sisters, in are humorous in how their characters and performances contrast. Williams often folds her arms and turns aside to eject herself from conversation, showcasing Ally’s nonchalance, while Lao’s body language is always more open and she’s always more bubbly, welcoming and encouraging conversation between the women. Though, the script’s insistence that each of their sentences need be punctuated by “actually” grows old fast and positions them as younger than their backgrounds suggest. We aren’t exposed to much of Sheridan in either role; as Helen Hitchings, she, like Mansfield, is of ailing health--though this doesn’t stop a cheeky slink underneath the bed with the writer. Sheridan returns in the second half as Ally’s mother for the last ten minutes or so; she’s soothing and gentle, caressing a bedresting Ally to comfort her. Maia Diamond, the nurses in each act, is an engaging stage performer, with a presence that draws attention, especially with her powerful and doctor-like posture when demanding the historic figures rest and avoid wearing themselves out. But there’s little to her characters; we never really learn enough about either.
I enjoyed my time at Modern Girls in Bed; it’s a great story about mighty New Zealand wahine, past and present, and it offers a modern domestic drama that highlights how important family is. Having said that, I wanted to connect with it so much more than I feel I have. The acts feel separate, like parts of different stories with only few threads of connection or like they were in reverse order. The critical reveal to progress the plot and explain Ally’s behaviour comes a little late to have it’s intended payoff. The symbolism used in the show’s second half is theatrical and eye-catching, but what it actually symbolises is a little murky. Modern Girls in Bed suffers from its disjointed structure and some confusing decisions, pulling back the exciting premise and engaging tale.
Modern Girls in Bed is currently showing at Circa Theatre until 22 September. It’s part of WTF! Women’s Theatre Festival (17 August - 27 October). To find out more on the show or the festival, please visit the Circa Theatre website, where tickets are also available to book.