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Is There Something Wrong with that Lady?

Is There Something Wrong with that Lady?
Writer: Debra Oswald
Director: Lee Lewis
Ensemble Theatre
September 18 to October 14, 2023

From the perverts rustling in the grass in Carlingford, to the ill-advised perm that kept her from contributing her best self to the construction of a mud-brick house near the Wombeyan Caves, to being the Offspring writer who gave a blow-by-blow description of how her actors should conduct their sex scene and ever after got mercilessly ribbed for it, we see a skilful storyteller at work.

The teller is Debra Oswald who has been making a living as a writer for over 40 years. She performs her endearingly honest and deliciously funny one-woman show against a backdrop of cardboard archive boxes piled high and a screen which projects candid family snapshots, cultural references and the key questions Oswald wants the audience to explore with her audience: What drives a writer to write? And why should she keep doing it?

In her 80-minute monologue, she offers up story after story of her quest to become a writer, and the soft underbelly that’s been exposed through her desperate desire to have an audience take delight in her characters.

Piling her rejected manuscripts onto the stage of the Ensemble Theatre, she paints a vivid picture of the sheer “doggedness” she’s had to cultivate to keep going. The ups and downs aren’t visible to the outside world, she says, and her “protective coating” has worn thin.

Looking at her impressive list of writing credits and awards, it would seem Oswald has had a stellar career as a wordsmith – after all she’s a two-time winner of the NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the creator/head writer of the first five seasons of the TV series Offspring. Her scriptwriting for TV has been diverse, her stage plays have been performed around the world and she has written a slew of novels for children and adults.

But, as she confesses, there’s been a lot of waiting and a lot of work that ends up languishing in the bottom drawer or archive box. The silences and eventual “thanks but no thanks” from theatre companies and other producers and publishers she’s pitched to have led to bouts of crippling self doubt and a “vast psychic hole” that yearns to be filled.

And yet … a delightful warmth is generated as she recounts her years as a Junior Hypochondriac, her desperate attempts to attract sexual intimacy in her university years, her struggle to develop plot lines for “Bananas In Pyjamas”, her mother-in-law’s quirky request to be buried with 25 teddy bears, the love of her life and partner Richard Glover’s first attempt to impress her by steaming vegetables with two eggs on top, her father’s delight in her writing and her mother’s lack of comment about it.

This layering of details reveals a feisty, self-deprecating and deeply reflective woman who has felt a lot of joy, knows she’s been very blessed and has transformed many of her humiliations and losses into compassion through the brewhouse of humorous anecdotes.

Larger issues of gender discrimination (which sees many more plays staged by male playwrights both in Australia and internationally), the debilitating pain of physical and mental illness and the realities of climate change are given appropriate gravitas without lingering on them.

The set for the play (Jeremy Allen) is simple but effective. The red chair at its centre glows hearth-like. The archive boxes attest to the masses of paper a writer will produce over her lifetime and need to store somewhere.

Oswald’s tunic top with its bold, floral embroidery (Jeremy Allen) hints at the rich and fertile nature of creative life and her dark trousers and sturdy, black, lace-up shoes (that are a tad orthopaedic-looking) confirm her mid-life need for slight steadying.

It took me a little while to adjust to the lighting (Matt Cox), which initially felt a bit raw and exposing, but I soon appreciated how clever it was to commence the play with Oswald lit so starkly. It made her look guileless and utterly vulnerable – and lowered any resistance I had to developing trust in her.

The sound and songs (Jessica Dunn) added buoyancy to help the audience stick with the emotional journey that traversed laughter, tears and buckets of sympathy.

Direction by Lee Lewis is sensitively done – giving us a few planes in which to encounter Oswald in action (for example lying back on the floor as a seductress) but never pulling the focus from Oswald’s storytelling.

So, is there something wrong with that lady – with this “bruised old dame” as Oswald calls herself?

No. In fact, there is something very right with her.

Meaning: Grab your tickets and take your seats. Let the enchantment by this super Aussie Scheherazade begin.

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