REVIEW: I Heart Alice Heart I (Auckland Arts Festival)

I heart Alice heart I
Image: Niamh Burke Kennedy

Too clever by Alice [by James Wenley]

I heart Alice heart I
Image: Niamh Burke Kennedy

The thinking goes: everyone has a story to tell, everyone has a potential theatre show in them. When Irish Theatre maker Amy Conroy oversaw a kiss between two 60-something women snatched in the aisle of Tescos, she thought she had stumbled upon a story worth telling, and the theatre show she had been looking for. These women – Alice Slattery and Alice Kinsella – would consider themselves ordinary, unremarkable, but by placing the story of their lives lived both separately and together we discover a story that is extraordinary.

The conceit of I Alice I is that the Alices who tell their story (played by Conroy and Clare Barrett) are aware that they are in the theatre telling their story to the audience. They approach on opposite sides of the stage, nervous and hand-wringing, and state “walk on and start facing the audience”, and repeat the mantra that the audience are their “friends, not enemies”. If they forget where they are up to, the order of the show is on the wall behind them for us all to see, which includes topics like “Shopping”, “Holidays”, “Questions”, “BC”, “Do we agree”. Postcards, pictures, and show-flyers of previous I heart productions are pinned on the walls. The production, and their acting style, is extremely self-conscious: they are even “caught out” by a change in lighting state.

As they ostensibly settle, the pair tells us their story of a life lived. As they acknowledge, much of it is mundane, but a collage is formed of each character’s unique idiosyncrasies and what makes them tick. We learn the kiss, which led the Conroy to interview the Alices and write and direct the show, was a momentary act of indiscretion between a couple who had learnt to be guarded, having to decide with each person that they met whether they were to “remain invisible” or to tell them about their relationship. Alice K always felt she was different, and recounts candidly and hilariously the soap-opera of her early lesbian experiences in an incestuous flat which she is both proud and mortified about. Alice S’s exploration of her sexuality comes later after the death of her husband Liam, and she has never felt quite comfortable with labels or part of the “gay community”. Alice and Alice are two people that click, and love each other.

In many ways they are polar opposites: Alice K is adventurous, Alice S is measured, but they complement and support each other. We also see their tensions and differences, lowering their tones and having a quite word to each other to try to get back on script. They share the storytelling, interjecting and telling each other stories. These are some of the most fascinating acting moments of the show: while one is speaking, the other is processing and reflecting. Conroy’s face as Alice K is often guarded, as if suppressing her emotions, a smile or a frown sometimes cracking through.

Despite the strong and emotive subject matter I had a hard time giving into the show. I found myself constantly watching the very particular performances of Conroy and Barrett. A recording, possibly of the real Alices, in which they remember their first evening together, was quick-witted, warm, and had a palpable sense of ease between them. In front of us however, the Alices seem constantly paralysed, Alice S’s hand-wringing never quite settles, and they act as if it is a real burden to open up to us. We are all offered cake during the show, but we are still treated as the “audience”, and not as friends. The performance conceit gets in the way of itself, and crucially, of the Alices’ story.

What does come out of the show most strongly is their love, and it is of the inspiring mould. I Alice I is a quietly remarkable and warm hearted shared story about two people who may have otherwise remained anonymous, and it makes you wonder what other stories are out there too.

 Alice  I is presented by HotForTheatre and plays as part of Auckland Arts Festival at Q Loft until 11 March. Details see Auckland Arts Festival.

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Lexie Matheson.

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