Saturday 23 March 2024

THE DRESS: Theatre Review

WHAT: The Dress
WHEN: 22 Mar - 30 Mar 2024
WHERE: Werribee Mansion
WRITTEN BY: Alaine Beek
DIRECTED BY: Nigel Sutton
PERFORMED BY: Alaine Beek, Lore Burns, and Scott Jackson
COSTUME BY: Harry Quinert

Scott Jackson - photo by David Mullins

A classic comedy of manners written in Melbourne? Who would have thought? Yet here one is in all its original glory and performed in the most perfect setting. The Dress is being presented for its second season (originally produced in 2022) at Werribee Mansion by Essence Productions for two weekends only. Head out west to see a glorious couture period gown presented in a sumptuous heritage estate and brought to life with a witty script and lively actors.

Celebrating the period in which the Werribee Mansion was built, Alaine Beek has written a comic yet heart-warming 90-minute play set in the late 1800s. Mrs Hannah Green (Beek) has been a widow for three years, living alone in her husband's mansion. As was the custom at the time, the estate was bequeathed to her son, and he has reduced her household staff to 4. This has now diminished to only 2 because people in that era were eschewing domestic jobs for factory work. Yes, factory work was possibly more dangerous, but I personally understand why you would resent being a drudge for wealthy loafers despite the romantic tomfoolery suggested in shows like Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs. Especially if you had made it all the way to Australia to get away from that sort of thing!

Still, it would be very lonely sitting around such an enormous estate with nobody to talk to and only your grief to keep you company. Back in those days, before pret-a-porter, one of the closest relationships women of means had been that with their seamster. Attire and status have always been synonymous across human history and dressmakers definitely madeth the woman in society in those days. In The Dress, Mr Bertin (Scott Jackson), is Hannah's seamster/confidante. 

The play begins at the point in Melbourne history when George's department store opened. Georges was unique in that it was a department store like Myers, but it catered exclusively for the well-to-do. Going there to shop was a full experience including fussing attendants, free (top shelf) alcohol, and an array of items which must have been positively mind-boggling at the time. What this meant for artisan dressmakers though, was a substantial loss of clientele and an inability to match the selection and availability of fabrics and finished clothing.

Mr Bertin is a desperate man. His customer base is receding at a rapid pace, the only form of marketing is word of mouth, or your clothes being worn at social occasions, and all of his money is invested in his fabric stock personally sourced from overseas trips. Bertin stumbles upon a clever idea. There is a masquerade on the upcoming social calendar, so he needs to find a patron to wear one of his creations to get some buzz and some business happening. But who?

Bertin has a delightful relationship with Hannah. She hasn't bought a gown in years, moping about her manor in black since her husband's death. Despite this, Bertin still visits regularly and they laugh and talk. On this visit, though, Bertin has a plan, and it has a dual purpose. He needs a gown at the masquerade, and he desperately wants his friend to come out of mourning and live her life to the full again. As he says, she is missed by everyone. 

Peeking through her diary Bertin identifies a name she has put a little heart beside - Mr Flattery - and commits to bringing this gentleman back into Hannah's life to escort her to the ball. There is a catch, however. No matter how hard he tries, Bertin cannot find Flattery. Hannah knows why and spends the time leading up to the ball playing with Bertin and his pretences, all the time letting him create a concoction she is sure she will never wear. Along the way we learn some Melbourne history and a bit about the art of couturier, Hannah has a lot of fun with a lobster, and Bertin gets a Cinderella story.

The Dress is performed in traverse along the main hall and up the grand staircase and the tale is accompanied by the depth and beauty of the sounds of a single live cello played by Lore Burns on the night I attended. Nigel Sutton (director) has done a great job with the constraints of this kind of theatre configuration (which seems to be having a revival across Melbourne I might add...) and Jackson keeps the pace energetic and lively as he strides and struts and patters up and down the hall always in a state of agitated excitement and exuberance. Beek has an elegance and dignity very suitable for the Lady she is portraying and there is a nice synergy of her slight Scottish accent referencing the original Scottish Chirnsides who built the Werribee Mansion in the 19th century.

The Dress is funny and sweet with just enough pathos to give it gravitas. The staging in the Werribee Mansion gives the story an authenticity and really does create an atmospheric connection to those times in which it is set. My one regret was I wanted the waltzing moment to be bigger, last longer. It has the opportunity to truly transport us back in time if they would literally sweep down the whole length of the great hall and back again. It has the potential to be as meaningful as 'Shall We Dance' in The King & I

I really enjoyed The Dress and the actual dress, made by Harry Quinert, is breath-taking. It does everything it sets out to do. It's a funny warm fuzzy in very dystopian times. If you don't live in the western suburbs why not take the opportunity to stay overnight in the hotel and then visit the zoo on your way home the next day? What a wonderful little mini-break that would be!

4.5 Stars

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