45DS-PKB-Recollection-Eve-Morey-as-Olivia-and-Ravenna-Bouckaert-as-Ariana-photo-by-Shane-PalmerIn grief, the pain of remembering what has been lost is often equal to the pain of noticing yourself slowly forgetting.

Georgia Ketels’ Recollection follows Olivia (Eve Morey) as she reckons with this cruel paradox following the sudden death of her daughter Molly (Molly Holohan). Desperate to stop time erasing her daughter’s memory, she finds a unique way to preserve her: making a perfume from the objects she left behind.

If a picture tells a thousand words then a smell tells us something less quantifiable and therefore more precious. In trying to recreate her daughter’s scent, Olivia finds a way to capture her complexities, preserving her memory and creating new memories of her in the process.

The close quarters of fortyfivedownstairs is transformed beautifully by designer Eloise Kent into a boutique distillery to facilitate this process. A towering collection of bell jars, cabinets and hangers at the back of the stage waits to house the objects that, or so Olivia hopes, can be distilled to create her daughter’s unique scent: baby teeth, a necklace, Lush bath bombs and used flannelettes.

The show is split between this distillation process – lead by perfumer, Ariana (the quietly magnetic Ravenna Bouckaert) – and the past where Molly is an overachiever and budding artist falling for the rebellious and oh-so-edgy Jenna (Mish Keating).

For 85-minutes we watch as the two stories interweave: Molly wearing clothes and writing sapphic odes that Olivia will eventually use to preserve her. Olivia’s journey, played with a heart-wrenching subtlety and emotional force by Morey, is in part frustration at seeing these objects fail to capture Molly’s complexity, and her realisation that her memories only ever captured part of her story. Molly didn’t have the chance to come out to her while she was alive.

What distinguishes Ketels’ writing is its restraint. Where debut playwrights can often be dogmatic and overstate their points, Ketels favours a quietude and subtlety led in earnest by what her characters want and need.

Scenes are ruminative; conversations rich in detail and a playful gallows humour that build over the play’s runtime like the subtle notes of a complex aroma you can name only by the end. These characters feel lived-in, a fact helped by equally subtle performances by Holohan and Morey in particular.

This restraint means the show has an elegiac air, mournful and reflective and at times a bit languorous. Silent scene transitions – Jess Keeffe’s piano-heavy and ballad-like underscoring could be used better – don’t help. There is also a tendency in some of the cast to downplay emotional beats.

While this shows director Cathy Hunt pulling the show back from the melodramatic, some performances favour an unchanging mode of disaffectedness that can come across as unhelpfully nonchalant during climactic moments.

But the show’s commitment to slow pacing and restraint is the perfect counter to the overuse of trauma-based storylines – especially for queer characters – in recent years. It allows us to sit with the subtle joys of Molly and Jenny’s burgeoning relationship without being constantly dogged by impending tragedy.

Their relationship can at times feel wholly disconnected from the grief that ultimately frames the show – Olivia’s mourning so tangential to their romance that it seems a completely separate play – but if that means we get a show leaning away from the ‘kill your gays’ trope than it’s a minor sacrifice.

Ultimately Recollection is not really about Molly, who is (thankfully) not given internalised homophobia to unpack or a lazy coming-out character arc (now rightly relegated to the doghouse of the Netflix Original). She is not given much of an arc at all really, seeming as perfectly preserved and unchanging as those objects underneath the bell jars in the back.

Jenny and Olivia’s relationship give the show much of its momentum in the end, the pairs unlikely almost-friendship another showcase for Ketel’s talents as a playwright who leans into the irresolvable complexities and tensions that ultimately define our relationships.

What Recollection reckons with, then, is a process of remembrance that makes space for these complexities; that offers an alternative to understanding, and thereby simplifying, a relationship just so we can mourn it more easily. The smell Olivia finds – and which we are given after the show from Smell Art – is as indefinable as the person it is meant to commemorate. For this reason, it’s truer to her memory.

fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Performance: Thursday 27 June 2024
Season continues to 7 July 2024

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Image: Eve Morey as Olivia and Ravenna Bouckaert as Ariana – photo by Shane Palmer

Review: Guy Webster