Bread Crumbs

Poppy Seed Bread Crumbs Benjamin Nichol & Ruby Johnston - photo by Pippa SamayaIt’s the third Poppy Seed Theatre Festival, an event intended to showcase new voices. Towards this, the programme includes Bread Crumbs by Ruby Johnson and Benjamin Nichol, a “self-devised” work from a group of recent VCA graduates. The play aims to bring a modern sensibility to the genre of Fairy Tales.

The original Hansel and Gretel found that breadcrumbs were not such a reliable means of helping them find their way. In their appearance in Bread Crumbs, the siblings scatter clues for the audience about their upbringing, but as for the fairy tale, it’s not so easy to get useful insights from the diffuse trail. I found the intended exploration of  “domestic abuse and the scarring impact it has on young people” got lost somewhere in the undergrowth.

Surely our environment made some contribution to this. A warm night with a lack of air circulation in this part of the Meat Market made it feel more of a sweatshop. It was tough to maintain concentration under this load. Further, audience seats obscured some sequences where characters were on the ground, possibly concealing important moments in relationships.

Our story begins with determined young girl Gretel (Ruby Johnson) taking her much younger brother (Benjamin Nichol) into the woods, notionally to find a prince to marry. Much of the first half of the piece tries very hard to be jokey in a goofy sort of way, with references to Melbourne locations and bogan culture merged into proceedings. It doesn’t add much to the story though.

The tale seems ready to get moving when Johnson meets her Prince Charming (also Nichol). At this point we start to explore forms of violence towards women in relationships. Yet, Nichol’s performance is so exaggerated and cocky that right from the beginning we see that he’s a bad egg. He’s also not very believable; great angst at the adverse effects of his actions towards Gretel was almost immediately jettisoned as he returned to his possessive, domineering self.

This is one part of a general difficulty I had in getting drawn into the work. In a Fairy Tale, even if there’s magic involved, there’s some logic in the flow of events. In Bread Crumbs things happen without being bound by any such logic. Unfortunately, once suspension of disbelief is shattered, other flaws in the production become increasingly apparent.

One notable issue here is a seeming lack of focus. The script can spend time on outing a male character as a misogynist, with no exploration of why he’s like that. And when he’s shown to be as unimportant and pathetic as an obsessively masturbatory internet troll anyway, spending time on chasing cheap laughs draws effort away from developing the other relationships.

Regrettably, Bread Crumbs has joined the ranks of a lot of under-developed work of recent times. I had hoped that the mentoring model of the Poppy Seed Festival would bring some more rigour to the development of works. Reviews show that this hasn’t happened on more than one occasion in the 2017 festival. Surely mentors asking tough questions about a play would give the public a better chance of seeing a more cohesive and satisfying result.

The lack of interrogation is a shame for Bread Crumbs, a work that has obvious potential. Johnson in particular maintained an authentic characterisation that brought freshness to the traditional Fairy Tale female character. She had compelling moments as she matured into an awareness of the narrow range of possibilities available to her in this setting.

It could be interesting to see this explored further, although again Bread Crumbs needs to think about which targets are worth hitting. Recent times have shown that the “Fairy Tale” is less prescriptive for women than it used to be, even for Disney’s heroines.

Bread Crumbs
Stables – Meat Market, Corner Courtney and Wreckyn Streets, North Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 22 November 2017 – 8.00pm
Season continues to 2 December 2017
Information and Bookings:

Image: Ruby Johnston and Benjamin Nichol star in Bread Crumbs – photo by Pippa Samaya

Review: Jason Whyte