Bombshells

Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, March 20

“I’M so fucking happy,” screams Theresa McTerry, bride-to-be, slamming down the bubbles. It won’t be the first time she says that. Protesting a little too much, perhaps? Theresa’s monologue is the fourth of six that make up Bombshells, Joanna Murray Smith’s cunningly named piece about women in a state of discovery. There are bombs thrown everywhere: little ones perhaps, given the suburban setting for five of the six pieces, but bombs capable of inflicting much damage nevertheless on those involved.

Sharon Millerchip as Theresa in Bombshells. Photograph: Steve Lunam

Sharon Millerchip as Theresa in Bombshells. Photograph: Steve Lunam

It goes without saying Bombshells needs an actress of many and varied gifts to carry it off. It was written for Caroline O’Connor and thus asks for a triple threat performer. In Sharon Millerchip it certainly has that, and the Ensemble has a gold-plated hit on its hands.

Murray Smith has astutely allowed some latitude in shaping Bombshells for 2013 (it was first performed in 2004) and for Millerchip. There are some up-to-date cultural references – predictably Theresa has a bit of a Kim Kardashian thing – and a wildly successful interpretation of the final section, in which nightclub singer Zoe has become a German cabaret artist.

Bombshells gets off to a reckless, breathless start with Meryl, a harried new mother with older children to wrangle, a home to run and a very keen sense of how she is failing to cope with anything approaching serenity or even competence. Millerchip makes Meryl extremely endearing, pouring out the torrent of words with a dogged awareness that it’s impossible for her to achieve what others seem – laughably – to think possible.

The least successful section comes second as Tiggy gives a lecture on cacti that turns into a cry of anguish. It’s simultaneously obvious and awkward. Millerchip is on happy territory with the third monologue, in which schoolgirl Mary O’Donnell attempts to run off yet again with top prize at her school’s talent show. Without her, you understand, it would not be a talent show; it would just be a show. Precious.

The fifth monologue is the only one for which Millerchip is demonstrably too young, but she has the right delicacy and astringency of touch for the story of a widow, ever busy doing things with other widows, who unexpectedly has a chance to be desired again.

Theresa’s wedding is the most complex of the pieces. As it starts, and as it is played by Millerchip, the audience laughs at the character rather than with her, no doubt about it. I found that very uncomfortable, which is not a bad thing in the theatre. Theresa has been captured by the whole romance of the thing: a big wedding, having snaffled a bloke, having done what everyone expects of someone like her. But she’s got plenty of go in her and she isn’t stupid. Millerchip finds the underlying bleakness without hammering the point.

Sharon Millerchip as Zoe in Bombshells. Photograph: Steve Lunam

Sharon Millerchip as Zoe in Bombshells. Photograph: Steve Lunam

Bombshells ends with diva on the slide Zoe who rallies to put on a performance, albeit a shaky one, and insinuate herself with the audience. Millerchip creates a Marlene Dietrich-style chanteuse of slinky manner, smoky vocals, suggestive banter and only a passing acquaintance with sobriety, a situation which accompanist Lindsay Partridge handles with urbane charm. (Partridge also composed some additional music; Max Lambert was the original composer.)

On Wednesday night the audience immediately jumped to its feet for Millerchip. Quite right too.

Bombshells continues at the Ensemble, Sydney, until April 13.

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