The Axe in the Ceiling is exactly what Melbourne Fringe is about: originality, charm and community. Well-written and packed full of laughs, it’s a hidden gem in the festival this year.
Writer and director, Jaya Berged has created a community-led adaptation of two Brother’s Grimm tales: Three Sillies and Clever Else. For many in the cast, it is their first time performing. But despite their inexperience – evidenced mostly in occasional projection issues – these bright-eyed newcomers fill the space with energy, laughter and an endearing sense of comradery.
But the star of the show is Berged. The show begins with that other Fringe staple: a technical difficulty. Berged tells us she will be our lighting operator after a last minute no-show. If we needed any more evidence of Berged’s skill as a theatremaker, then this was it. Despite some slower-than-usual blackouts, Berged took to the new role with aplomb.
Her writing, too, deserves praise. Adapting two Grimm stories for a modern audience is no easy feat. In just over an hour, Berged offers a fresh take on these age-old stories full of bawdy witticisms, splashes of metatheatricality and tongue-in-cheek self-awareness grounded by her Indian heritage and in tune with the still-germinating skills of her diverse cast.
Chhaya, or ‘Clever Chhaya’, is in the midst of being courted by the dashing Hunar when she spots an axe lodged in the ceiling of her parent’s wine cellar. It’s the first oddity she encounters in her story.
The next occurs after her and Hunar’s slapdash marriage. After accidentally consuming a weed brownie, she falls asleep in a cornfield where her thankless husband promptly throws a bird net over her.
Helping us make sense of these classic Grimm-style oddities is Jiyah, our narrator. For much of the show, she recounts Chhaya’s story with charisma and impressive comedic timing, turning the pages of a large picture book (full of gorgeous artwork by Ariel De Ramos) stage left to help clarify the story’s complex twists and turns.
Berged’s writing is playful and self-assured. Beneath the ribald lines and light-hearted dialogue is a well-expressed examination of agency and the slipperiness of self-knowledge. Admittedly, the script struggles to marry its first half focused on the story of Three Sillies to these themes.
The more confidently rendered second half (an adaptation of Clever Else) features a metatheatrical conceit that proves to be the perfect showcase for Berged’s tight control of pacing and comedic call-backs, as well as her complex ideas about identity.
The Axe in the Ceiling is a diamond in the rough. Any elements one might consider ‘rough’ – occasional dropped lines, slow transitions or inconsistent costuming for instance – only contribute to its charm.
There is a particular alchemy to seeing the joyfulness of those discovering theatre for the first time supported by a confident, and genuinely funny script. Despite an overwritten ending, it is imminently watchable and endlessly charming. I look forward to seeing what this team comes up with next.
The Axe in the Ceiling
The Motley Bauhaus – Black Box, 118 Elgin Street, Carlton
Performance: Saturday 7 October 2023
Season continues to 22 October 2023
Information and Bookings: www.melbournefringe.com.au
Image: Jaya Berged – photo by Evangelina Vlahakis
Review: Guy Webster