REVIEW: Conversations with Dead Relatives (The Basement)

Review by Cynthia Lam

[Badly Remembered or Forgotten?]

“If you don’t know where you come from, how do you know where you’re going?” — Alex in Conversations

Conversations with Dead Relatives is an intimate and heart-warming play written and performed by partners Alex Ellis and Phil Ormsby, and directed by Jennifer Ward-Lealand. Shifting between oral storytelling and dramatic re-enactment, the play begins all the way back in 1870 when the ancestors of Alex and Phil migrated and embarked on a perilous sea voyage across the globe to a “group of tiny islands at the edge of the world”.

Alex and Phil take on multiple roles as each other’s ancestors throughout the play (a total of seven). Their forebears range from a Viking (his origin from Norway or Sweden being contested), to an Uncle Stanley (the black sheep of the family), to J.W. and his “great romance” with Manawa (the daughter of a Maori chief). The play brings up questions that include: What stories are passed down? Which ones are embellished? Which ones are forgotten?

As the conversations progress, a more feminist strand is woven in when ideas such as “a women’s only power in the world is having children”, and “a child would be proof I was here” are discussed and debated.  Inter-generational conflict and the shifting of values in regards to women is brought to the forefront — an urgent societal issue that we are all familiar with.  The need for women to be “adaptable” and to take on the domestic responsibilities once married is lamented by one of the ancestors telling us her story. Questions are posed not only among the ancestors and Phil and Alex, but also to the audience, as the couple ponder their own parental status: “What happens if I don’t have children? Would I cease to exist?”

The material and content for Conversations is very apt to its setting and stage direction.  The audience walks in to Phil sitting comfortably at a dining table, writing on his notepad.  It is as if we have been invited to Phil and Alex’s living room and are having a chat with them over a cuppa.  Family photographs are taken out and placed on the table, and lovely old leather trunks are suitably scattered around on the floor.  Phil and Alex are wonderful as actors, with Alex’s high energy complementing Phil’s more relaxed demeanor; I got the feeling that Phil and Alex weren’t really “acting”, but just “being themselves” really.  The pace and tone of the play varies throughout, depending on the personality and energy of the ancestor being presented.   At times I did get a bit lost as to which ancestor was being presented, and who was related to whom.  I was expecting some sort of dramatic climax in the storyline as the play progressed, yet I did not get this; but perhaps this is the beauty and essence of the play — it is a conversation with dead relatives, and it is aptly presented as that.

Truthful, honest and very real, Conversations draws you into Phil and Alex’s world of family and lineage and leaves us pondering our own stories that we might tell and leave behind.

Conversations with Dead Relatives is presented by Flaxworks Theatre Company and plays at The Basement until 7th April. 

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