Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
October 9, 2016

Geelong-based company Back to Back, which features performers with an intellectual disability, has justifiably built an enviable reputation for making bold, unique, group-devised work, with shows like Ganesh versus the Third Reich and Small Metal Objects winning international acclaim.

With their latest production Lady Eats Apple, which has its world premiere season at the Melbourne Festival, the Company really pushes the boat out in terms of the adventurous staging, but the play itself feels disappointingly slight.

Lady Eats Apple. Photo by Jeff Busby

It starts promisingly. Gathering in the stalls foyer, the audience is led down a backstage corridor to squeeze into the venue one by one through the slit-like entrance of an inflatable structure. Inside, we find ourselves in a small, black-lined performance space within the concert hall. In a wryly amusing opening, Scott Price and guest actor Brian Lipson instruct us to put on headphones and introduce the show using storyboards.

Devised by the company of actors with Artistic Director Bruce Gladwin, Lady Eats Apple then unfolds over three very different acts. The first entitled An Insecure God draws on the creation story in The Book of Genesis, with Price as an angry God getting Adam and Eve (Mark Deans and Sarah Mainwaring) to help him name animals as he conjures drawings of them. Issuing a thunderous, lengthy edict that they don’t eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge – which Lipson (as the Son of God or perhaps Satan) suggests he make snappier – the Woman does, of course, succumb and the pair are banished.

Act 1 unfolds on two levels, with Price as the actor rehearsing the scene also railing about how he is not taken seriously or respected, and Lipson, as a “menor”/production manager, trying to reassure him. Meanwhile, Lipson’s character fields nagging phone calls from his wife and, as the two narratives meld, begs God to kill him.

Mark Deans, Scott Price, Simon Laherty, Romany Latham, Brian Lipson and Sarah Mainwaring in Lady Eats Apple. Photo by Jeff Busby

In Act 2 (Matter Creates Matter) we seem to enter the Dark Ages – literally. I lost any sense of time as we sat in near darkness (for 20 minutes, I’m told) glimpsing a white shape that inflates then disappears and then, eventually, shadowy figures walking across the back screen, while ambient music composed by Chris Abrahams plays in our headphones. It seemed to last so long with so little happening that I truly began to wonder if my eyes had failed me and everyone else was seeing a brightly lit stage. Then some white fabric billows brightly in the air at the back of the stage and the actors are revealed in Act 3 (The Human Bond) as cleaners at Hamer Hall, some arguing about promotion, while a couple (Mainwaring and Simon Laherty) romance each other despite the disapproval of their boss (Romany Latham): a latter day Adam and Eve, if you will, who want to taste the forbidden fruit.

The dramatic set transformations between the acts are thrilling, and the staging is ingenious both in concept and execution (set design by Mark Cuthbertson). It’s also an incredibly brave move to push things as far as they do in Act 2 – though the pay-off is questionable. Lady Eats Apple raises various issues including the de-sexualisation of people deemed to have intellectual disabilities. There is also some interplay between ideas of the mythical and the everyday, and around life and death. But the piece feels underdeveloped and falls rather flat, failing to engage in the way that Back to Back usually does.

Back to Back runs at Hamer Hall until October 13

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