Theatre – Made to Measure
Venue: The Seymour Theatre
Written By: Alana Valentine
Directed By: Tim Jones
Commissioned by the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, a medical unit focusing primarily on “lifestyle” diseases – obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular conditions – we wonder whether the usually authentic Valentine can affirm and celebrate Ashleigh (Megan Wilding) while giving a truthful picture of the effect of weight on health.
When we first meet Ashleigh she is contemplating a scar on her thumb. She recalls going to the doctor only to have the cut ignored while the doctor lectured on the possible adverse effects of her body weight. The tale shows us quickly how difficult she finds it to be taken seriously, how she can be wounded with impunity and how she must constantly struggle against reminders of her devalued status.
She is sitting on the external steps of a wedding couturier’s salon as she speaks, and behind her the dazzlingly white interior, complete with chaise lounge and ethereal narrow-waisted bridal gown, embodies the dream of chaste glamour and impeccable style (designer, Melanie Liertz). When the elegant Monica (Tracey Mann) arrives to unlock her palace of deception, she does not for a moment consider that the large bodied Ashleigh might be a potential client.
In a feisty exchange, Ashleigh seems confident and Monica capable of a more open-minded approach than her steely appearance suggests. She assures Ashleigh that she can create a dress for her “just as she is” which will make her special day perfect – with several stories illustrating the benefits of weight loss in would-be brides thrown in – and Ashleigh is incentivised.
However, as the fittings progress, Ashleigh’s internal conflict increases. Wonderfully expressed through an embodied and traitorous inner voice (Sam O’Sullivan) who at one time tempts her with goodies, at another time brutally shames her, at another affirms her lifestyle as freedom of choice, she is overwhelmed by doubt. She abandons both the dress and the belief that she is worthy of the love it symbolises.
When the urbane Monica, whom we suspect is not as in control of her life as she likes the world to believe, turns on Ashleigh with vitriolic savagery, it seems an appalling betrayal of trust. The lovely promise of a victory over what is almost endemic discrimination against those who live their lives in large bodies is broken. There is a way back, and Valentine leads us with assurance to the deeply moving attainment of Ashleigh’s dream but not without acknowledging the shadow of death.
Sensitively directed by Tim Jones, Valentine’s courageous and insightful play, savage, tender and funny by turns, is elegantly staged and superbly performed by a gifted cast. It measures up as a stunning night’s theatre.