Famous Flora Fascinates [by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth]
Choosing to stage Elisabeth Easther’s premiere about Flora Mackenzie, one of Auckland’s most notorious Mesdames, at the White House was a stroke of genius. The venue not only gave the show added dimension, being totally apt, but also acted as an eight character in the 7-strong cast that entertained us at the opening of Famous Flora last night.
In keeping with Mackenzie’s bold historical persona in Auckland, that of a madame supreme who ruled the city’s underworld sex scene for thirty years, the choice of venue was reflected on the faces of the audience members as they arrived to see the show. Many of whom made a point of saying out loud at the top of their lungs: “This is the first time I have been here”. Which almost seemed to mirror Shakespeare’s famous quote “The lady doth protest too much, me thinks”. But I digress.
The story flits between Flora in her heyday of the glamorous and stylish 1940s and the moral panics of the 1970s, resulting in comprehensive insight into her public and private lives all rolled into one. Easther’s ability to weave both eras together to form a pretty package is commendable. That being said I think some of the dialogue and build up could do with a little more tightening up as the show’s resolution is reached without much warning. Maybe a bit more time spent on the finale would help balance the meticulously crafted build up.
As nontraditional as its location, Famous Flora begins with ‘foreplay’ involving the audience, which includes direction from various cast members (already in character) dashing through the audience telling us to “carry on talking and ignore any stage antics” – something I noticed that our ‘obedient’ Auckland audience found very hard to grapple with.
Daniel Williams’ set is very well thought out and to be honest other than the actual set on the formal part of the stage, it was hard to see where the set ended and the actual character of The White House began. The cohesion of the design with the pre-existing heavy velvet drapes and cushioned booths that covered the periphery of the space was spot on, as is Nik Janiurek‘s lighting design.
Megan Adams‘ choreography complements Ben Crowder’s direction, making full use of the space where cast members constantly duck in around and out of the audience without hesitation or warning. This includes clever use of the bar, tables and even the poles for the White House dancers that are superbly utilised to great effect. Another fabulous directorial choice to make the audience feel like they are in the show, rather than watching a show, should be commended as it inevitably sucks us all into Flora’s mystical world.
All the supporting actors shine tonight with an almost Agatha Christie-esque class which includes lawyers, lovers, lovees, sailors and lovable loose gals. Jess Sayer shines as the loyal saucy minx and sidekick of both the Old Flora (Yvette Parsons) and Young Flora (Kate Elliott). While the constable Stephen (Kevin Keys), lawyer Bernard (Fraser Brown) and sailor Henry (Joseph Wycoff) all fight feverishly for Flora’s attention throughout the piece, her dear friend Lawrence (Kip Chapman) plays his part magnificently.
Elizabeth Whiting’s costume choices are beautiful but also really embody each character’s parts. Her ability to add just a little touch to change characters from one era to another such as a change of shoes from pretty court shoes to platforms is subtle but efficient. Just like props, Whiting has the knack of assisting actors to be more believably by making them feel their characters through the way she clothes them.
The success of the portrayal of Flora clearly hinges on the skill and empathy that the audience has for her, both Young and Old. Parsons and Elliott dazzle in their own right. They are both utterly convincing in their depiction of joy, pain and fortitude. Both actresses deserve high acclaim for their stellar performances tonight.
Whether you’ve been to The White House or not, Famous Flora is definitely worth a look in – go check out.
Playtime Theatre presents Famous Flora plays at The White House, Queen St until 29 November. Details see I-ticket