Their father was big and strong. He could be fun, but more often than not he was scary, angry, brutal and dogmatic. He couldn’t land a job and so money was always tight. He drank. After surviving WWII, which included being shipwrecked and a prisoner of war on the Thai-Burma Railway, he had PTSD. His wife, their mother, stood by him – constantly pointing to what he had been through – even though she, too, was treated badly. This is the story of Jack (Ian Bliss), Martha (Maude Davey) and their five children.
Jill (Lucy Goleby) was the oldest, while Johnnie (James O’Connell) was the senior of the three boys. Twins Mouse (Zachary Pidd) and Door (Benjamin Nichol) were the other two lads. And then there was the youngest member of the family, Christine (Angourie Rice). Academically gifted and self-confident, Jill always knew her father for what he was. She even tried to convince her mother to leave him. Johnnie quickly became dad’s whipping boy. He was always looking to catch out Johnnie and belittle him. He couldn’t tell the twins – who were inseparable, much to his chagrin – apart. Youngster Christine often leapt to his defence, even though his behaviour was frequently volatile and deplorable. She liked hearing his evocative war stories.
My Sister Jill, written by Patricia Cornelius and directed by Susie Dee, is a family saga examining the unrelentingly legacy of war. The pair has worked together a lot. They constantly challenge one another as they explore class and gender, shedding light on ordinary people facing life’s hardships. They are fearless and pose questions many have been too uncomfortable to tackle. My Sister Jill, which has been adapted from Cornelius’ own novel, fits the mould. It is part autobiographical, although the acclaimed playwright and novelist has taken significant creative liberties with the story. It captures the spirit and struggle of a generation of Australians post Second World War.
Although compelling, it is not an easy watch, nor should it be. The subject matter and its treatment see to that. Pain and fear are constants. The play has been superbly written, directed and performed. Cornelius’ gritty work has rarely graced the stages of major theatre companies. More is the pity. In this case, much credit goes to MTC, which supported and championed the creation of My Sister Jill through its NEXT STAGE Writers’ Program. The piece is peppered with explosions and meltdowns, with us – the audience –waiting for the inevitable next eruption. This is theatre on a knife’s edge.
Ian Bliss ensures that Jack is realised as a ticking time bomb. He is ferocious and frightening and, on occasions, vulnerable … sinking. As Jill, Lucy Goleby knows only one way – fighting fire with fire. She doesn’t back away and the consequences are dramatic. Angourie Rice is equally mighty as the young family enthusiast, cum narrator Christine, who prefers the glossy picture. Benjamin Nichol excels as the deeply needy Door, with Zachary Pidd’s metamorphosis as Mouse is impressive. James O’Connell grows in stature from the disparaged and downtrodden Johnnie as the plot unfolds. Maude Davey portrays the stoic wife Martha, who has put up with so much and is forever tested, with conviction.
Marg Horwell’s set consists of the outline of a rundown home, along with an authentic 1953 FX Holden. The latter had seen better days when purchased by MTC, but was fixed up and sprayed light green by the talented production team. Horwell is also responsible for the costuming, with much fun to be had dressing adults as children of the ‘50s. With lighting by Rachel Burke and composition and sound from Kelly Ryall, My Sister Jill leaves an indelible footprint. Its emotional resonance is striking. It is playing at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until 28th October, 2023.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Big Heart (Theatre Works) – theatre review
- kerosene/SIRENS (fortyfivedownstairs) – theatre review
- The House of Bernarda Alba (MTC) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.