Reviewed by Frances Devlin-Glass on Sunday, 27.09.09 for 3CR’s “Curtain Up” Sundays at 1.00pm on 855AM.Hoy Polloy seems to exist to challenge its audiences. The Cat’s Paw is no exception. A docudrama by new and local playwright, Christine Croyden,it is in your face in terms of its subject matter. Prostitution, pimping, suicide and drugs in the dark lanes of St. Kilda. It’s a strangely hybrid play, with heavily realistic elements in a dirty realist style, but also a layer of non-naturalism.
The non-naturalism takes the form of a highly interpretable tatterdemalion angel, with a glorious Irish accent (listeners, I feel sure will allow me to indulge my enthusiasms in this small matter), who also acts as narrator at times. Stephanie Lillis spews out all sorts of religious sentimentalism, piety and idealism, which I take is intended ironically, but she cannot at all deal with the scene of horror and self-loathing that the dead streetgirl represents. The prostitutes are a powerful assemblage of drug takers, self-mutilators, suicides, sometimes naïve and sometimes exceptionally hardened women. But they all have their backgrounds and stories, and these are painful - the runaways, the cast out, the adventure-seekers who don’t fit in, those curious about their sexual power, and we feel for them. One of the mysteries and marvels of this script is that it does not compromise on reality but that does not stop it from being compassionate. One had the sense we were being given a tour of hell, by a very sympathetic guide who understood its pathologies well.
There were four main prostitutes: Brigid, Zoe Ellerton-Ashley, the main focus, played her role as seductress very compellingly – she was credibly the warm, approachable whore with a heart of gold, but equally, a hard-bitten woman who knew how to allay male anxieties and was performing in a mask for her client, a man who had been dumped by his girlfriend. Her vulnerabilities and her danger to the man were also not skimped on – her skills with a scalpel applied first to herself, and later to the client were horrifying. Her timing and poise were exceptional and at every point and in every mode, she was utterly credible. One really felt for the kid who was different and alienated. Indeed, the keyword in the play was, I think, disconnect. None of these women were able to enter into relationships, but they were often good at faking it.
Her pimp, Esther played by Kylie Bell, was a wonderful foil. A woman who masqueraded as a private investigator in order to promote the business, and acquire more clients, she did a fine line in hard-boiled ex-cop, a line of patter with words falling out the side of her mouth, to suit the role. Unlike her dependents, she dressed in short trenchcoat and adopted the body-language of the self-enclosed. Her demise was a surprise, but justified by the action of the play.
Daniel Rice as the client was open-faced and naïve about the prostitution racket and an easy prey for the pimp and Brigid, and even he was a sympathetic character. His search for comfort and his intention to make things better for the woman he was also prepared to pay for was again credible and heart-warming. He had a stunning repertoire of non-verbal responses to his situation, and also half-uttered responses. A strong and understated role.
The two support roles were also well contrasted with the ones I’ve mentioned. One of these roles played by Emma Lhyne, involved a very young child, her inexperience tagged by her bobby-sox. She had slipped into the drug scene and was doomed not to survive. Her arrival in heaven and confrontation with the somewhat mad angel was a fine climactic moment of disconnect between these two characters. Her older mentor, Cecilia Condon, was dressed brassily and spoke knowingly of the dangers of the scene, which were well exemplified in the earliest scenes of the play, but she too proved to be highly vulnerable despite the veneer of carelessness.
The set was grungy St. Kilda, complete with neon-lit devil’s head and raunchy woman, with curtains of white plastic which I think were meant to represent a degraded version of the billowy opulence of bordello interiors. I speak here with a very little knowledge, having recently seen an early morning scrub-out of such a place in Townsville’s dank redlight district, with white silky curtains billowing in the wind after a hose-out. The set was not at all elegant, however, and the playing spaces resembled caves and dugouts, chambers of hell.
An intriguing script, and a compelling and evenly cast performance. My only criticism is that it was sometimes hard to hear the actors, and they could have taken it at a slower pace. A very brave undertaking by Hoy Polloy, and one that is not for the faint-hearted. However, those called by curiosity about the St. Kilda scene and those who want a think-piece, this is a highly engaged and engaging theatre-piece.