Famous Western Australian import Tim Minchin, along with Kylie, Dame Edna and Vegemite can stand aside. Why? Well, Julia Hales has arrived from Perth, WA, thanks to Black Swan theatre company, to share her love of TV soap Home and Away with UK audiences. Her references to Alf, Tom and Pippa raise knowing laughs from fans in the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room taking, it seems, a welcome break from high culture.
There’s a cabaret feel to events as Ms Hales endearingly acts as our mistress of ceremonies. She proves adept at controlling the action, addressing us directly, inviting her friends on stage and marshalling audience participation. The performance, however, isn’t purely for laughs. It is billed as a live documentary and Hales’ life is definitely under the lens. Projected video and interviews mean that, alongside the Summer Bay action, there’s a touch of politics and polemic to proceedings.
Julia tells us about her life as an empowered, liberated 38-year-old woman who happens to have the extra chromosome that gives her Down’s Syndrome. She invites her friends with the same “‘plus one” to help. Their involvement largely involves dance. Lauren Marchbank demonstrates her skills, and opinions, as a professional dancer. Childhood friend Joshua Bott moonwalks across the stage like a pro. Mark and Melissa Junor movingly recreate the first dance from their wedding. If this feels like a party, it’s because, basically, it is one. Everyone on stage has fun.
The word ‘disability’ is uttered, I think, twice. We sense differences, yes, but when Ms Hales describes her attraction to tall handsome men, her acting dreams, her experience of grief and – yes – her deep, deep fandom of a TV soap, right-thinking audience members can only empathetically feel the common ground. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Theatre, if it is anything, is an empathy machine. We instinctively relate to the people it puts in front of us. Here, importantly, we are not learning about the challenges Down’s Syndrome presents. There are well-meaning, but often flawed other campaigns for that. If You Know We Belong Together is a hit, it is because it presents a different, wholly engaging vision of universal truths.
Our heartstrings are never overly tugged. This is a cleverer, more disciplined piece of theatre than that. Take a bow Director Clare Watson. Everyone’s comic timing is on point too. As well as gags from our host, guest film star Tina Fielding deserves a nod for a palm reading routine, improvised with audience members, that ends with a killer wink to the audience. I laughed a lot. I also, as a final video showed that dreams maybe do come true sometimes, cried a little too. The message, of course, is we do belong together. Reminding audiences of our shared humanity is the point of it all though, surely? Doing it with skill, care, love and humour is, without a doubt, worth five of your reviewer’s stars. I honestly can’t think of a better reason to go to the theatre.
Written by: Julia Hales with Finn O’Branagain and Clare Watson
Directed by: Clare Watson
Set & Costume Design by: Tyler Hill
Lighting Design by: Joe Paradise Lui
Sound Design & Composer: Rachel Dease
Video Design by: Michael Carmody
Movement Direction by: Laura Boynes