Marion Potts returns to the stage to direct this British play about female friendship, starring three of Melbourne's finest actresses
In the north of England in the ’80s, three 18-year-old students move into a share house together. As individuals, the women are trepidatiously shaping themselves, finding their feet in a changing world. Together, they’re a force to be reckoned with.
In her 2011 play Di and Viv and Rose, lauded British playwright Amanda Bullmore tackles female friendship: that knotty, shifting and deeply powerful bond that can last a lifetime. In the case of the three titular characters, it’s a connection that hits hard and fast, waxes and wanes, and withstands life’s storms until the very end.
The play opens in the university’s residential halls where the three women first meet. Rose (Mandy McElhinney, all blue eyeshadow, big hair and ’80s-patterned T-shirts) is an extroverted art history student from the countryside with an insatiable appetite for affection, sex, and “beautiful things”. Viv (Belinda McClory, sporting short, spiked hair) is a frosty and fiercely ambitious sociologist who “dresses like it’s the war”. Di (Nadine Garner, perpetually in tracksuits and soccer jerseys) is an easy-going, sports-loving lesbian. Rose is all heart, Viv is all intellect, and Di is the level-headed presence that glues the trio together.
At first glance, Di and Viv and Rose is a warm and funny work that treads a familiar, comfortable path. The entire first act takes place in the two years spent in the share house. Bullmore dwells on these formative years for a lot longer than the subsequent decades, which makes sense; in these wild two years, their identities solidify and their personalities entwine like climbing vines. It’s a testament to Bullmore’s writing, and the excellent performances by all three actors, that their relationship grows organically and authentically.
The wit in Bullmore’s script crackles in the hands of Garner, McClory and McElhinney, as the women bounce off each other, hitting every comic beat. Bullmore lingers over everyday moments like petty squabbles over communal cooking and washing, late-night drunken conversations, awkward discussions around sex and dating and earnest undergraduate debates about the patriarchy (Viv’s impassioned speech about men “inventing the waist” as a means of oppression is particularly charming).
Director Marion Potts clearly holds equal respect for these lighter scenes as she does for the dark and painful ones that are to come. The most beautiful scene in the first act is a wordless one, as the three friends return from a boozy night out and break into a outrageous rendition of ’99 Luftballons’, their physicality and personalities amplified in their dance moves. It’s all cleverly disarming – as with life, some of the most significant moments and warmest memories are made in the most everyday situations.
The home itself, called ‘Mossbank’, feels almost like a fourth character. The lounge room (MTC regular Dale Ferguson) is so accurate to share house life that it hurts: mismatched furniture, a phone that lives on the ground and dog-eared music posters on the walls. Their shabby-chic student outfits (also by Ferguson) are realistic to a fault, and transitions are marked by a rollicking soundtrack of The Clash, The Cure, The Smiths and Billy Bragg.
Then tragedy hits, and everything changes. Nadine Garner displays incredible depth in her portrayal of Di, as she breaks, then rebuilds herself with Viv and Rose at her side. This sudden shift in tone heralds the beginning of the second act, which leaps forward years at a time, picking out key moments in their friendship; births, career highlights, marriages, deaths.
If life speeds up as you get older, this is certainly true for the trajectory of Di and Viv and Rose. It’s at the expense of the warmth of the first act (even the incredibly rich, colourful lighting deployed by designer Paul Jackson in the Mossbank scenes feels washed out). But this is exactly the point. It’s as if, having watched the foundation of their friendship been laid, we’re now watching it being tested by hardship and physical and emotional distance. The friends adjust to their new lives, which veer off in radically different directions. As the years wear on, they also adjust to awkward silences, prickly comments, shame, and envy – but always with a bedrock of love.
Reduced to the ‘big moments’ of life, the play at times is cruder in conveying meaning, laying on lines about friendship, life and love in broad strokes. It’s here where the performances become a little uneven; while McElhinney consistently shines as Rose, McClory as Viv seems to lose her footing.
Thankfully, the final scene is a welcome return to form across the board. Potts allows the play to slow down, as the women – now much older – meet after many years of separation and a great deal of pain. Pleading with Di to take her back as a friend, Viv lets her guard down. “I need someone who gets it – the long trail of what’s gone behind,” she says. Here, we’re allowed to stop and consider the significance of the years these women have known each other, perhaps better than anyone else does.
It’s this vivid, heartfelt portrayal of female friendship, resilient and difficult as it is, that is the greatest triumph of Di and Viv and Rose. As with other feminist authors like Elena Ferrante and her Neapolitan Novels series, Bullmore manages the rare feat of cutting to the core of what makes these relationships so powerful. In casting three of Melbourne’s finest actresses and one of the country’s strongest directors, the Melbourne Theatre Company have ensured that Di and Viv and Rose gets the Australian premiere it deserves.