Homeward longing [by James Wenley]
Gloria quickly washes over you with a warmly sentimental “feel-good” factor. This is partly invoked by the knowledge that the one-woman play is based on the true story experiences of war bride Gloria Stanford, and the accompanying nostalgia associated with New Zealand in the World War II era. Then mix in a little national pride: her character speaks of a beautiful country from the view point that you can only see when you have left the country, and long for it again. As she says, the stars are nearer here. But the feeling is especially warm because it is a play written as a tribute to her by Gloria’s granddaughters Amy Waller and Catherine Waller, and Gloria is spiritedly performed by Amy.
There’s that school of thought that everyone has a story to tell. Certainly Gloria’s is a doozy. After marrying an American serviceman, and having his child, at the age of 21 she is to travel to America to join him and start her new life far away from the one she has known. What happened next made a local headline. A fascinating article from the period is reproduced in the TAPAC foyer – “The Bride Who Wouldn’t Leave New Zealand”, and details how Gloria insisted to the ship’s captain that she gets off, and told the reporter that “I don’t want to go to America. I want to go home”. Her mother, tellingly, is quoted is saying it felt like her daughter “had come back from the dead”.
Of course, we might all have stories, but that doesn’t mean we all deserve our own theatre shows about us. What’s most important is the telling. In the telling of this story the Waller’s have borne out some classic themes: the allure of overseas, young love, the troubles of war, the need for personal fulfillment and happiness, and that feeling of home. Theatrically they keep it moving, interspersing Gloria’s monologue with stylised movement and era-specific dance, which Amy carries off with aplomb as she energetically dances with an imagined partner.
What the reporter of the original article wouldn’t have known was that Gloria would eventually find herself in America with her husband Charles, and it is here that the dramaturgical framework is found as Gloria hosts an antipodean cooking demonstration to a lady’s group, and recounts her experiences of a land her guests are quite unfamiliar with (“of course we have kitchens in New Zealand”).
There’s a delightful play between action and soundscape (courtesy of sound designer Ben King), as she pours tea and opens lids, and she becomes taken by the memories and sounds of her past. This device eases us into the flashbacks of life back in New Zealand.
In the cooking demonstration scenes the script has a tendency to over sign-post Gloria’s interaction with her listeners, too often repeating their unheard questions for the audience’s benefit, which gives a stilted effect. Other times the writing shows more restraint, giving us just enough to evoke images of her life without dwelling too long, such as Gloria’s reflections on the “milkboy cowboys” who did not return from the war.
Amy maintains a bright and cheery disposition, fully engaging us in her character’s tales. One issue the framework creates is that she adopts a too perfect façade to her American listeners, a defensive posture through which we are only sometimes let into the real Gloria. It is the moments of vulnerability that are most powerful here, and the façade is carried through for too much of the piece: we connect with the story, but don’t connect enough with her.
Gloria is a remarkable story – of a person, of a time, of a nation – that is a reminder of one of the most important things in life: family.
Gloria is presented by Vintage Collective and plays at TAPAC until 30 November. Details see TAPAC.
Disclosure: Theatre Scenes contributor Sharu Delilkan co-produced this season of Gloria.