Writer: Alana Valentine
Co-directors: Hannah Goodwin, Eamon Flack
Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir
April 2 – May 29, 2022
Alana Valentine’s Wayside Bride, a warm tribute to the work of the Reverend Ted Noffs and the Wayside Chapel, is a moving affirmation of the power of acceptance to transform human lives. The playwright as actor in, and observer of, her own play becomes a point of intersection between past and present socio-religious attitudes that exclude those judged to be unworthy from experiencing life more safely, more richly, more fully.
As actor in her own drama, Valentine tests her own authenticity as a practitioner of verbatim theatre. While many, many interviews with a community are recorded, the playwright must shape the material into a theatrical performance. In doing so, does truthfulness become a lesser interest or is the truth given a greater impact as those who believe their voice of no value, or who can’t voice their story in a coherent way, are lent (in a way) the playwright’s creative magic to help them recognise and value their own voice?
The play opens with a very funny conversation between Alana (an engaging Emily Goddard) and her mother, Janice (Sacha Horler) as Alana tries to press a reluctant Janice to say why she was married at the Wayside Chapel. Her mother stubbornly clings to the fiction that the Wayside was “just around the corner” until she is drawn into talking about a dress she made for her interview with Noffs (Brandon McClelland). The dress “was really hard to make” – perhaps like piecing together a play from bits and pieces – but in the end “she did it”, her success giving her the confidence to face the interview. Magically (with Rashidi Edward as a sparkling genie) the dress transforms Alana into Janice who spends her day watching and listening at Wayside.
While the churches drew their circle of acceptance firmly, Noffs created a different circle and any who chose to enter it – although they may have danced to their own tune – were assured of a glowing “Welcome” and hospitality (a coffee urn and biscuit barrel). Noffs and his wife Margaret (again Horler who gives an outstanding performance in both her roles) opened the Wayside chapel in 1964 as a means of tackling the social problems of the Cross – the disaffected young, a pervasive drug culture and prostitution – and it became a refuge for the marginalised and those denied marriage and baptismal rites. The Ted we meet, in a powder-blue suit and white shoes, believes that people need acceptance rather than “fixing”, but his dedication has come at a price as the loyal Margaret later reveals in a powerful scene.
Throughout Alana’s composite day at Wayside we meet a sampling of the people who found acceptance within the Wayside circle. From the disoriented, sweet awesome (Maggie Blinco), the relaxed Joan (Sandy Greenwood) living in a car with her husband-to-be, the beehived interjector into others’ conversations (Rebecca Massey), a vociferous bride (Angelina Penrith) crying like a baby or a wolf because her father will not give her away, a debonair gay (Marco Chiappi) who agrees to be a substitute parent, a wraith-like bride in white lace (Blinco) who married a Vietnamese against both their parents’ inclinations, to a more fashionable “I’m an artist” couple (Massey and Edward), we gain the impression of the teeming life in the Cross and of the colourful chaos at the Chapel. It was all too much for the Methodist Church which found excuses to try to hobble its rebellious minister who preferred humanity to divinity.
As the play comes full circle and we return to Alana and Janice, who concedes that as a divorcee Noffs was her only option, the playwright Valentine joins her own voice with the voices of all the marginalised beneath a now rainbow-coloured “Welcome”. While it can be claimed we live in a secular age, two recent plays – Heroes of the Fourth Turning (Seymour) and A is for Apple (Griffin) – strongly suggest the restrictive and devaluing practices of religious or ideological faith is still a burning issue for many.