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Theatre Review: Ladies in Lavender

Ladies in Lavender

Adapted by Shaun McKenna

From a screenplay by Charles Dance

Based on a short story by William Locke

The Ensemble Theatre until August 15

So I knocked back an invitation to watch the final State of Origin match on a massive indoor screen at a lavish and expensive promotional event at The Star to review a drawing room drama based on a short story about a couple of older, terribly, terribly English ladies in a remote village in Cornwall in 1936? What was I thinking?

Ladies in Lavender was originally a short story that was turned into a screenplay that has been adapted for the stage.

The two older sisters had lived in a coastal village in Cornwall all their lives when a mysterious young man is washed onto the shore near their home. Who is he? Where did he come from? Where was he going, and, heaven forbid, is he actually a foreigner? With the help of Dr. Henry Mead, Janet and Ursula nurse him back to health and secretly hope that he never leaves. Why? He’s young and handsome and has a special talent.

The plot takes a twist when a young, beautiful, free-spirited artist appears on the scene and there’s a certain inevitability that is sure to devastate some and excite others.

As Janet, the sensible, well-organised, slightly anally-retentive, emotion-controlled sister (and did I mention terribly, terribly English?) who had a short-term but largely unromantic relationship with a man who died young, Penny Cook is outstanding. Cook, a 1978 NIDA grad who started her career in theatre, is best known for her work in television, and in this production, still well and truly demonstrates that she has the chops to excel on the stage. The poise, the posture and the attitude of Janet are all organic and natural.

While Cook is outstanding, Sharon Flanagan as Ursula, is amazing. Ursula has grown up in a protected, village environment in which the petty is significant and a special treat is an extra teaspoon of sugar in her cup of cocoa. It’s safe to say that she has never been kissed, and when the stranger arrives, she’s fascinated, infatuated and unsure about how to connect, communicate, express her suppressed feelings and release the frustration of never having been with a man. This character allows Flanagan to show her range. In a small theatre on a thrust stage, there is nowhere to hide. The audience can see every move, every eye twitch, every bead of sweat. Every emotion is exposed, and Flanagan is entirely present and thoroughly convincing and powerful throughout her performance. While she unfailingly brings it to the stage and is highly respected, Flanagan is unfortunately under-recognised by the broader community.

Under the sensitive direction of Nicole Buffoni, there are no weak acting or other links in this production.

Lisa Gormley is perfect in her portrayal the independent, intense, subtly sensual and passionate Olga Danilov.

As Andréa, recent WAAPA grad, Benjamin Hoetjes has been really well cast. Something about his performance, presence and stage skills remind me of a young Hugo Weaving at the start of his career. I’ll be watching the careers of both of these fine young actors with interest.

Gael Ballantyne plays housekeeper Dorcas who provides most of the comic relief with her timely quips, much like the Berta character in the television series, Two and a Half Men, and her West Country brogue enhances the comedy. Dorcas is like King Lear’s The Fool, a lower-status character that provides insights into the foibles of the other characters.

Daniel Mitchell is Dr. Mead, the local medico who shows an inordinate interest in one of the newcomers, and Mitchell is, as usual, strong and convincing. Having not seen him in many years, I noticed that Mitchell is looking more and more like his father, Warren. The accent is clearly Cornwall rather than East London, but sporting a moustache and waistcoat, he provided the occasional glimpse of Alf Garnett. Perhaps that was just my illusion.

Designer Anna Gardiner has come up with a brilliant set for the small performing area and has created an entire mezzanine-level bedroom. The floorboards of the cottage transform into a cloudy sky that extends outwards to represent the Cornwall coastline and the larger world.

Ladies in Lavender juxtaposes small village mentality with big dreams and global perspectives that maintain their relevance in today’s world and is superbly executed by the Ensemble Theatre.

So was it worth sacrificing the State of Origin extravaganza at The Star? It certainly was.

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