We are ushered into the Rosina Courtyard of the Abbotsford Convent and seated, as if for a wedding, on two sides of an aisle, staring at a wooden arch, draped with fabric and adorned with flowers.
The wedding is over, though. Crushed beer cans are scattered near flower pots. Cigarette butts crushed onto the concrete. And the reception is already happening indoors. We can hear raucous laughter and music inside, as the bride, Sutton (Evie Korver), escapes outside for a breath of fresh air.
There’s someone missing. An old friend. A school friend. Someone who Sutton always thought would be at her precisely-designed wedding, even if she couldn’t ever quite see how or where they would fit.
But as she finishes sharing her secret of missing her old school-friend with us, Dan (Eddie Pattison) appears at the other end of the courtyard.
Dan, who grew up with Sutton in their conservative small town as Dana, was invited but never RSVP’d. The missing friend from Sutton’s picture-perfect wedding has been there all along and bummed a ciggie from the groom.
The two long-time estranged friends have some unfinished business to deal with: resentment, betrayal, transphobia, homophobia and the list goes on and on. Their hormone-fuelled teenage years don’t feel so far away now.
Em Tambree’s play, Altar, is a beautifully-drawn work full of robust arguments about difficult subject matter. There is passion and anger on both sides, but everything is handled so delicately and sensitively.
The two characters are multi-dimensional and we get a sense of their history and their many years apart in the things said and left unsaid. Tambree has a light touch, even as both characters vent years of resentment; the audience isn’t beaten over the head. It feels like we are eavesdropping, as this fraught reunion happens all around us.
Sutton is a complicated character, and sometimes difficult to like. Growing up as part of the local church community has defined her. Her struggles with reconciling God and becoming a science teacher is an almost surface-level issue once Dan arrives and they have to unpack their knotty, complicated history together.
Korver keeps a lot of Sutton’s truth under the surface of this bride’s immaculate wedding-day façade. She gives hints of what is underneath early on but she hides a lot until the two characters slip into childishness and a chase. It’s a smartly-judged performance that really shines late in the piece.
Eddie Pattison’s Dan is full of confidence just teetering on the edge of a “lads, lads, lads” personality, which they can code-switch in and out of as the conflict between the two characters rises and falls.
Dan is very funny and has the righteous anger of someone who has had to search for their real self. Pattison is a ball of energy, who is equally comfortable with comedy and drama.
The use of this courtyard space in the ground of Abbotsford Convent brings a wonderful level of verisimilitude – especially with the sun setting throughout the show and with the added bonus of bats flying overhead just as dusk creeps in.
Callum Cheah’s sound design – evoking a whole party indoors, out of our sight – makes the whole experience feel truly alive.
I was really thrilled by this play and its tight, thoughtful production. Director Kat Yates keeps things fresh in the open-air space and allows the actors to truly shine in moments of physicality and stillness.
This is Tambree’s first play and it’s a striking debut. I’ll be keeping an eye out for their future work. And, because this show had such a short run as part of Midsumma, I really hope this play finds new life in the future. It’s a real treasure of a show.
Abbotsford Convent (Rosina Courtyard), 1 St Heliers Street, Abbotsford
Performance: Friday 9 February 2024
Season: 7 – 10 February 2024
Image: Eddie Pattison as Dan and Evie Korver as Sutton in ALTAR – photos by Margot Stewart
Review: Keith Gow