The Mentor

The figure of the ageing film star has a near vice-like grip on audiences. Many will know the name Norma Desmond before knowing the film that launched her into the pantheon of canonical characters. And she’s not alone.

Most recently, films like Last Night in Soho and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool have sought to better understand why the faded actress – it is nearly always a woman – has such a hold on culture-at-large.

The reasons are multifarious, and often inflected by the misogyny that pushes actresses out of the spotlight once they reach a certain age.

The Mentor is interested in interrogating this figure and engaging with these discussions. Unfortunately, it wades into these heady waters with a reductive simplicity that is only saved by the strength of its performers.

The show centres on Amanda Redfern (Amanda Muggleton), a faded film star turned acting coach. When we meet her it’s late Friday afternoon and she’s napping on her couch.

It has been years since her starring role in Angel Undone; a box-office smash hit that launched her career and, we’re told, ‘put the Australian film industry on the map’.

A knock on the door wakes her and, after a splash of rouge and a spritz of perfume, she’s greeting aspiring actor Jordan Ridley (Connor Morel) with a quick smile and an even quicker wit. It’s Norma Desmond if she had bleach-blonde locks and lived in a quiet suburban corner of Western Australia.

Ridley works the reception at a law firm in the city and has dreams of becoming an actor. Redfern coaches Ridley on the nuances of acting with a series of eclectic lessons – from a staged death, a screaming match, a Motown dance number.

Meanwhile, their conversations range from the purpose of acting to the sexism that denies older women agency and sexual desire. Over time, Ridley and Redfern develop a friendship that eventually reveals a shared experience of grief.

The Mentor is a difficult play to describe. Not because of it’s abstract style – it is doggedly naturalistic – but because in outlining its plot one condenses and clarifies details that the show introduces in a confused or non-specific manner.

When we meet Redfern she appears to be in the twilight of her career, a fact she clearly resents. Her lessons to Ridley are characterised by a cynicism and thinly veiled resentment that implies an experience of having been pushed out, or forcibly neglected by the industry.

Yet, in voicemails that serve as transitions between each scene, we hear her agent, her ex-husband and her son either reaching out in earnest, or offering her a new job opportunity.

When Redfern begins to rightly critique the ways in which older women are mistreated by the film industry and relegated to an isolated existence, her critique seems to fly in the face of these calls. It’s an unhelpful contradiction, one of many that compromise the script.

In the end, these voicemails reveal a certain tragedy that has left Redfern grief-stricken. But it’s difficult to understand how we are meant to map her grief against the show’s interest in the systemic ways women are pushed out of the industry. Is it grief alone that has isolated her?

As it stands, the precise nature of her treatment by the film industry is unclear to the point of appearing frustratingly underdeveloped. The critique offered by the show consequently appears too general to be interesting.

Ridley is given a similarly tragic back-story to Redfern that is near-impossible to connect to the play’s overwrought attempts at social commentary.

The over-reliance on trauma as a method for characterisation has been rightfully, and continually, critiqued. And here both Muggleton and Morel struggle to inject pathos into monologues dedicated to revealing their character’s haunted pasts.

While writer Joshua White often reveals a flare for comedy, these more dramatic moments are either too conventional or, again, noticeably non-specific.

A son’s drug addiction is described with a generalised mention of ‘various pills’ and backstories are thinly drawn appeals to cliché – Ridley bemoans distant parents and a dead-end job while Redfern never mentions the ex-husband that keeps leaving her voicemails.

Most striking is the lack of specificity in the show’s evocation of the film industry. There are broad stroke mentions of the industry’s toxicity but they are again non-specific, relying on tired tropes surrounding Hollywood and Los Angeles that undermine the authenticity of these character’s very real – or so we’re told – struggles.

There are occasional glimpses of a different show behind the veil, one that is more directly anchored in Australia’s specific, and no less insidious, iteration of an American film-industry model.

But these moments are often relegated to alluring asides, dismissed to give space to various trauma-based subplots and generalised statements that become more central as the show goes on.

‘You need to find the life!’, Redfern screams at Ridley during one of her many eclectic teaching sessions. It’s an odd dictum she returns to often and an apt summary of the show’s repeated reliance on the generalisable.

‘The life’ is non-specific. It is consequently all the more impressive to note the stellar performances given by Muggleton and Morel to ‘find the life’ in their characters.

Unsurprisingly, Muggleton’s charisma is undeniable and she makes the most of every comedic beat and wry witticism. In more dramatic monologues, she resists the possibility of slipping into melodrama with subtle movements and a quietly affecting earnestness.

In similar moments, Morel sometimes slips into the overdramatic. But he matches Muggleton’s charisma in spades, delivering a physically impressive and magnetic performance as Ridley.

Set Design by Casey Harper-Wood is effective, though a frame of velvet green curtains makes lighting appear muted and unhelpfully constricts the space.

Jason Bovaird’s Lighting Design signals changes in day or night with creativity and flare – a sun-dappled curtain and a twilight ambience via subtle blue lighting was particularly gorgeous.

Unfortunately, Justin Gardam’s Sound Design – which includes a menacing tonal score and evocatively distorted mashup of Motown hits – is poorly justified in the script, though effective on its own.

The reason for Norma Desmond’s infamy as a character is, in part, because of the way her reception contradicts the seeming intention behind her characterisation. The faded, resentful actress is the one we remember.

Any veiled critique about the role of older women intended by her inclusion in the film is lost, or ironically contradicted by the flare of her performance and her continuing influence.

In this, perhaps The Mentor does offer a continuation of this long-held tradition by allowing a star a rightful vehicle to showcase her immense talents as a performer. If only the show itself were as memorable.

The Mentor
Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda
Performance: Thursday 17 November 2022
Season continues to 26 November 2022
Information and Bookings:

Image: Connor Morel (he/him) and Amanda Muggleton (she/her) in The Mentor – photo by Lucinda Goodwin

Review: Guy Webster