Warm, Unassuming and Meaningful: Smoking Gum’s “Rosie, Ruth and Susan”

Katie Davern takes milk with no sugar

Katie Davern takes milk with no sugar

Rosie, Ruth & Susan is an emotional medley of stories from the lives of three clearly admired women, voiced honestly by three grandchildren. Director Lucinda Vitek and performers Charlie O’Grady and Finn Davis all conducted interviews with their grandmothers, and then worked together to integrate the different stories into the flowing performance that inhabited M2 Gallery in Surry Hills for the better half of the past week.

Walking into the space at M2 for the very first time on opening night, I expected a more traditional theatre set up. Instead, I was offered tea: a fair trade-off. There was no real division between the performers’ space and the audience’s, and before any dialogue began, and for about 10 minutes, audience members were invited to make themselves a cuppa, and to traipse idly around the room and gaze at the dozens of photos taken from the lives of the play’s subjects as they squarely adorned the walls. Meanwhile, the three plainly dressed performers, sat on chairs, each seemingly preoccupied with a prop; a photo album, a teddy bear, a cup of tea and saucer.

Looking at the photos on the wall — at weddings, formals, a family holiday to Merimbula in 1940— I felt a bit uneasy and invasive, like I was an intruder with no right to be staring so intently at the memorialised experiences of someone to whom I had absolutely no connection. But the incredibly intimate and delicate nature of the play soon dispelled my uneasiness and opened up another dimension of the performance. The hasty hospitality was just so characteristic of a visit to a grandparent. I thought maybe this was what it was like when Vitek, O’Grady and Davis all visited their grandmothers to do their interviews; a bit uncomfortable at first, then a rush of validating calm.

It was clear that every performer’s impersonation of their grandmother was informed by a deep personal relationship, immediately giving honesty and sincerity to the play, even as the performers shifted genders, accents and laughs. (Mention must be made of O’Grady’s brilliant Scottish accent!)

The play moved frequently and fluidly between characters and snippets of stories, and as the minutes passed, the more the grief and sadness of Rosie, Ruth and Susan’s lives, and arguably of their generation, was elucidated.

But the play wasn’t all tender and morose. The audience was told stories of unexpected on-the-brink-of-brawls on London buses, about how Balmain was actually quite middle class back in the day, and the real reason why English med students study in Scandinavia.

While I can’t quite say it made me immediately want to visit my one living grandparent (who lives halfway across the world), Vitek’s direction and the collaborative efforts of the performers made possible a warm play that struck a near-perfect balance between unassuming and meaningful.