Last year, the Sisters Grimm put on a show in a backyard shed in Thornbury. They pushed the crap aside and brought in some op shop curtains and folding chairs. It was nigh on impossible to get one of those seats and Melbourne was split into those who saw Summertime in the Garden of Eden and those who did not.
But – praise be – Summertime’s deep south has returned to Melbourne’s inner south and there might be some tickets left for the Theatre Works season, but get in quick because ticket sales prove that missing it isn’t an option, unless you go to Sydney for the Griffin season.
Declan Greene and Ash Flanders formed the Sisters because they were bored to tears by the dullness of mainstream theatre. From making venues out of any available space, they’re now being invited onto mainstream stages (Little Mercy recently went to the STC and The Sovereign Wife was created for the MTC’s Neon program), but they have consistently ensured that they embrace the extra budget and broader audience with the same mix of disdain and love that got them there in the first place.
Summertime (written by Greene and Flanders) is a Gone-With-the-Wind-cum-Tennessee-Williams Georgia. The rumblings of war and change are heard, but mean little as Daisy Mae (Agent Cleave), Big Daddy (Bessie Holland), Mammy (Genevieve Giuffre) and Daisy’s beau (Peter Paltos) prepare for the return of prodigal sister Honey Sue (Olympia Bukkakis).
Saying more about gender, race and class (and theatre audiences) than a posh university full of earnest arts students, their shocking secrets are revealed in a story that makes perfect sense in the world where debutantes have full beards and a golliwog doll is cheered.
And, being a Sisters’s show, it’s tear-wiping painfully funny. It’s not easy to laugh at the likes of Big Daddy’s abuse of Mammy and the revelation of what Honey Sue saw in the greenhouse, but it’s impossible not to.
Following the shed-chic of its first outing, first-time Sister and designer Marg Howell had to create a new world to bring it into a theatre. In this south, the cotton is high, the horse is crocheted and the flowering plant holders are macrame, and – along with Katie Sfetkidis’s emotion-churning lighting – this overwhelmingly beautiful world re-defines high-camp trash with a look that’s as outrageously glorious and sharply intelligent as its writing.
And the costumes! From Mammy’s white trash wigger garb to dangerously swirly hooped dresses and a finger licking Big Daddy, the costumes show character with a glance and suit each performer so much that it’s hard to imagine anyone else wearing them.
And the cast! With Greene’s direction keeping the story tight and forcing everyone to the edge of no return, they balance a pin head between caricature and originality that teases with its familiarity and turns to run squealing into the unexpected. And their endless pain and repression is shriekingly funny.
I loved the backyard chooks and VB fridge of the shed show, but all little Sisters grow up to discard their training bras and dance in a bigger world. Summertime in the Garden of Eden is as shocking and hilarious as any of their earlier works, but they’ve transformed their atrocious aesthetic into something exquisite.