This new Australian work by Melbourne-based company She Said Theatre is a familiar story of innocence lost, told in a fresh and sophisticated way
Think of the phrase ‘child star’ – particularly in relation to young women – and a handful of narratives immediately spring to mind. There’s the innocent girl ‘going off the rails’ after being flung into fame and adulthood too early. There’s the teenage rebel who steers her career in radically different directions to cast off her former, sanitised public persona. And there’s the child performer who falls victim to the darkest side of the entertainment industry; one in which adult men wield dangerous amounts of power.
These narratives have been told so many times (and often in such broad strokes by the media) that they veer into becoming stereotypical. Worse, they diminish the actual experiences of the child stars themselves, reducing their experiences to well-worn clichés (think of Miley, Lindsay or Britney).
Salt is the story of a child star with a regrettably familiar trajectory; and yet, there is nothing stereotypical about this new Australian work. By focusing on the inner lives of two complex female characters and the relationship between them, She Said Theatre offers a fresh and intimate perspective on what lurks behind the sheen of fame and sitcom stardom.
Caitlyn (Artemis Ioannides) is a fearless 13-year-old with the fantasy of becoming a performer on her favourite Saturday morning TV show. It’s hosted by Bobby (Scott Major), a world-weary middle-aged wannabe rockstar who settled on becoming a comedian on kids’ television. He is managed by his shrewd and ambitious daughter Sam (Brigid Gallacher). When (shriek!) Caitlyn actually gets onto the show, Sam smells a successful father-daughter sitcom. The network picks up their show, and it instantly becomes a hit. What Caitlyn can’t know at the time is the price she’ll pay to make her dreams come true.
What is instantly striking about Salt is its energy; at times intense and controlled, other times light and rapid. The opening sequence sees Caitlin striking a pose, back to the audience and bathed in low, coloured light, suspended in reverie in the moment seconds before showtime. “The thing I loved, the thing I wanted, was that feeling,” she says, in voiceover. “Before any of it even begins... When a taste hits your tongue – sweet, sour, salt – and your nerves are firing, asking is it good, is it bad, is it going to kill me?”
Lights rise, and we’re jolted into a sugar rush of exposition. The three characters – Caitlyn, Bobby and Sam – address the audience, filling us in on the events of the years up until Caitlyn gets her big break at 13. There’s a feel of the Australian family comedy-drama to these opening scenes, as if they’re mirroring the show that launches Caitlyn’s career – as well as mining our own nostalgia for television we watched growing up. There’s a sense that we’re being lulled into a false sense of security; there’s the loud ’80s and ’90s prints and glitter make-up (costume designer Bryanna Lowen), colourful, bright lighting (lighting designer Amelia Lever-Davidson) and tracks by Mariah Carey. Ioannides is electric as the charming Caitlyn, with the range to convey childlike innocence as well as the character’s clumsy attempts to hide it. As the scrappy, disaffected Bobby, Major conveys the character’s rising desperation, all the while laying the groundwork for his shameful behaviour in the play’s final moments. But it is Gallacher, visibly masking her need for a real relationship with her father by assuming a position of power over him, who shines brightest as Sam.
Together, the trio fall deeper and deeper into their private worlds of pain. Fame’s intoxication reaches a literal apex at an awards night afterparty, then suffers a crushing fall when distressing truths are revealed about how Sam was conceived, and Caitlyn suddenly realises that she is drunk on the Champagne fed to her by adult men who now surround her. With the gloss of showbusiness rubbed away, the second half of Salt feels like sobering up. Where the kitsch Australian kitchen that forms the set of the TV show (and of the play) once felt bright and full of promise (set designer Owen Phillips), it now feels like the site of a claustrophobic, passive aggressive battle ground.
It is a testament to writer Seanna van Helten that the relationships between the three characters are incredibly complex; their desperate desires, unfulfilled expectations and shifting power dynamics constantly humming below the surface. Director Penny Harpham handles each character with care, deftly shifting perspectives from Sam to Caitlyn and back, so that by the end, we’re given a fuller account of the final events – events that ultimately seem painfully inevitable.
Salt is a poignant retelling of a familiar story, but it is also a moving exploration of female adolescence and relationships between young women. As a theatre company on a mission to amplify women’s voices in their work and in Australia’s theatre industry, She Said Theatre are proving themselves a force to be reckoned with.