Tiny Beautiful Things (Qld Theatre) – theatre review

Photo: Brett Boardman

An equally amusing and moving theatre work, Tiny Beautiful Things from Queensland Theatre grips the audience from the first minute to the last. A sparse domestic set design of kitchen, living room and stairs leading up to an unseen upper floor (courtesy of Simone Romaniuk) shows us the home of Sugar – a woman who’s set herself up as an advice columnist. In fact, she’s Cheryl Strayed, famed author of the novel-turned-movie, Wild, who took this unusual path on a literary website, The Rumpus, before compiling the letters into a book. (The TV adaptation, from Reese Witherspoon’s company, is also streaming at the moment.)

Photo: Brett Boardman

Beloved TV actor, Mandy McElhinney (Wakefield, Love Child, and many more), stars in her first production for Queensland Theatre. A Sydney Theatre Company regular, she radiates warmth and sincerity as she performs almost unending domestic chores for the 90-minute entirety of the play while listening and responding to the problems she receives in her in-box. The other actors, known in the program simply as Letter Writer #1, #2 and #3, play numerous personas from the zany to the heartbreaking. They are Stephen Geronimos, Sepi Burgiani and Nic Prior, with all having their moment to shine.

The four actors move around in the domestic space, basically just reciting the words their characters have written in the letters. It’s a simple but very effective method and was adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame. All use American accents to keep the play in its original setting, as the letter writers ask about seemingly trivial things in the early stages then move through to heartrending pleas for help to move forward from traumas.

In turn, Sugar herself reveals her own issues that have helped form her and tackles each problem with empathy and understanding. Perhaps the one that stays with you the most is the father (Geronimos) who feels it’s too hard to go on after the death of his only child. Unable to write a regular letter, he puts his thoughts down in numbered dot points, to which Sugar’s thoughtful dot-point response tugs at the heartstrings for its simplicity and devastating emotional generosity.

Queensland Theatre’s Creative Director, Lee Lewis (Prima Facie, First Casualty), has directed this quality theatrical work which, it has to be said, tackles some tough and uncomfortable topics. There’s a trigger warning about the subject matter and some of the letters are the real ones written to Strayed. There’s also an uneasiness to the very minimalist sound design by Brady Watkins that breathes an almost palpable tension as things unfold.

The play is ultimately about hope and love – two of the things to help get us through any of our darker times. It’s highly recommended.

Tiny Beautiful Things runs in the Bille Brown Theatre, Brisbane until 8 July 2023

Vicki Englund

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