Tantrum Youth Arts’ play about an election night dinner party speaks with authenticity and verve.
Meg O’Hara, Alana McGaughey, Phoebe Turnbull and Daynah Simmons in Tantrum Youth Arts’ Sorry to Cut You Off, Penny. Image supplied.
A group of young women gather in a share house in Maitland, regional NSW, for an evening of conversation and vegan food. It’s federal election night 2019, and hopes are high that Australia’s political landscape is about to change. The host, Phoebe, preps food while waiting for her guests. She’s wearing a red t-shirt with ‘Vote 1 Chloe Shorten’s husband’ emblazoned across the front. One by one, the three guests arrive, pausing to introduce themselves to the audience at the front of the stage. ‘I’m Alana,’ declares a staunch blonde 20-something, ‘And I’m tired of fuckwits.’ The dinner party and the evening of election watching has begun.
As the evening progresses, we are drawn into the lives of these millennials. Meg talks about her life as an activist and part-time retail worker; Alana, a vegan, admits to a past that includes the dubious pleasure of chicken-flavoured Twisties; ‘politically illiterate’ 19-year-old Daynah describes ‘dishpigging’ at a fast food outlet; Phoebe tells the story of a failed social interaction with a young engineering student. Meanwhile, the production is overlaid with a soundscape drawn from the ABC’s election night coverage, as Penny Wong is repeatedly cut off by a male anchor. Later in the production, Julia Gillard’s famous misogyny speech will loop through the theatre, ending in a choral rendition of her statement to Tony Abbott: ‘I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man, not now, not ever’.
Early in the play, Phoebe turns towards the audience and recites the famous slogan ‘the political is personal, the personal is political’. It’s the idea on which the whole production hinges. Assembled from autobiographical material and verbatim material from the lives of the four young performers, and their ill-fated Maitland dinner party, the script is woven through with ideas about how power and gender collide. To be silenced, disregarded, patronised, underestimated and ignored are experiences that recur for all these young women, as well as the high-profile female politicians they refer to in their play. The play’s regional setting reinforces this sense of being a long way from the centre of power.
The writing is angry, funny, and cathartic. While cooking on stage, the dinner party guests serve up meals that include a Bob Katter Platter, Piping Hot Potatoes a la Dutton with a side of Malcolm Tabouli, and finally a Richard Di Nutella chocolate cake for dessert. While Meg rages, Phoebe quietly observes that even in left-wing progressive circles, it is usually the women who are responsible for bringing snacks and washing up. Interestingly, food emerges as a potent motif. A discussion on the relative merits of chicken versus cheese Twisties become a microcosm of the Australian political arena. ‘I’ll stick with what I’m comfortable with, with what I know,’ proclaims one character, choosing cheese over chicken while foreshadowing the election result. Entertainingly, equating iconic snacks with political conservatism also neatly echoes John Howard’s ‘relaxed and comfortable’ dictum.
Beyond the idea of food, of course, lies the broader theme of consumption. The script is littered with the debris of brand names, products and big box retailers. These millennials use brands almost like waypoints to navigate the complex landscapes of personal and political power. Phoebe describes a joyous episode from her childhood – when she unwrapped a Freddo Frog to find two chocolates inside – as a ‘two Freddo feeling!’ Later another character picks up her phrase, using it to describe Tony Abbott’s fall from power. ‘Australia’s got 99 problems’, she adds, ‘but Abbott ain’t one’.
Sorry to Cut You Off, Penny is a raw, passionate experiment in collaborative creation and political commentary. It speaks with authenticity and verve, blending political dialogue with jokes about Eurovision, while taking risks with both script and staging. At times a kind of desperation drives the writing, as the millennials describe their attempts to stay afloat in the gig economy, their disenfranchisement with the mainstream parties. Yet they are never silent.
4 stars out of 5 ★★★★
Sorry to Cut You Off, Penny
Tantrum’s Trajectory Ensemble
Created by Alana McGaughey, Meg O’Hara, Phoebe Turnbull and Daynah Simmons in collaboration with David Williams.
Performed by Alana McGaughey, Meg O’Hara, Phoebe Turnbull and Daynah Simmons
PACT Sydney: 4-7 September 2019
Civic Theatre Playhouse, Newcastle: 11-14 September 2019