Coda for Shirley. By Geoff Page. Directed by Kate Blackhurst. The Acting Company in association with Shadow House Pits. The Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre. Bookings: 6275 2700 or canberratheatrecentre.com.au. Until December 8.
Geoff Page’s Coda for Shirley elegantly completes the verse trilogy that began a few years ago with Lawrie and Shirley, then continued with Cara Carissima.
Shirley’s late–in-life love, Lawrie, is long dead and gone and her world is now the smallness of a nursing-home room. Shirley (Micki Beckett) puts together a last letter to her daughters Sarah (Nikki-Lyn Hunter) and Jane (Elaine Noon) explaining why and how her worldly goods will skip a generation and go to Sarah’s sons.
Sarah and Jane are both comfortably off despite divorce and widowhood respectively but still resent the bequest to a pair of young men who turned their backs on formal studies in law and medicine. One’s in a band and the other is working for the likes of Anglicare. They seem to be in steady relationships - one is with the forthright Jen (Alex McPherson) - and the legacy will in fact sensibly enable a foot on the property ladder, albeit in a share situation.
Apart from the two sisters, no one meets face to face, but the intimacy of the Courtyard Studio suits the organisation of the set into three separate areas. There’s a lovely green rounded suspended seat for Jen’s description of the next generation’s lives and a bar for Sarah and Jane as they grumble about their own lives and their mother’s decision. And for Shirley, there’s the confines of a wheelchair.
Page’s elegant script and Kate Blackhurst's sensibly simple direction explore the tension between generations.with humour and insight.
Hunter and Noon make a fine pair of middle-aged sisters, both wedded to variations on material success, querulously puzzled by Shirley’s view and still resentful of the happy relationship she had with Lawrie. Shirley regrets sending them to grammar school.
McPherson’s Jen earthily describes a much more grounded life in the Melbourne house Shirley’s bequest makes possible. Her performance brings the unseen grandsons nicely to life and looks squarely to the future.
But Shirley is the character at the heart of the play and Beckett gives a beautifully judged performance. Trapped by age and bad hips, she uses what last power she has, brandishing the will that might ensure a better life for her grandsons as long as her daughters do not decide to contest it.
Set unselfconsciously in Canberra, Coda for Shirley is successfully both local and universal. Audiences may certainly recognise the geography. This play gently celebrates life and lives and makes a grand ending to the saga of Lawrie and Shirley.