Darkness. Pitch black and the voice of Sally creating an ASMR recording. We hear the sounds of her wiping down a table, drinking tea and opening a packet of Italian biscuits. It arouses a lot of laughter but it also strikes the first chord in Barron’s play about boundaries and consent. Even if people use ASMR just for relaxation, it is an intimate act, having someone’s voice inside your head, regardless of what it leads to. Parasocial relationships can be formed on less than this.
Clare Barron’s play SHHHH is a series of two-hander scenes, loosely connected, mostly by Sally or her sister Shareen, who are navigating two complicated relationships – Sally in her early days with Preeya, and Shareen with her long-term friend-with-benefits, Kyle. One scene doesn’t necessarily lead to the next and there is little build in dramatic tension from moment to moment.
But the individual moments are rich in character and connection, sometimes visceral in their descriptions of sex or violence and are humorous or arousing in moments that transgress: a witchy ritual that requires blood - completed by the extraction of a menstrual cup, or an explicit conversation about sex and poo in a pizza restaurant, or a first sexual encounter that involves electroplay.
The tapestry of stories are scattered across Romanie Harper’s lush, maximalist set that feels otherworldly but over and over reveals icons of the mundane – a toilet, coffee cups, a toy lamb, candles, a square of dirt and more. There is so much to see on this set but do not be distracted by the colourful backdrop or the fluffy carpet, real life lays underneath.
Director Emma Valente guides the actors into digging deep into each encounter, finding the complicated humanity in each situation and sometimes allowing them to let loose or hold us in an uncomfortable moment for a long time.
Performances are great across the board, but Caroline Lee is a standout here – playing Sally, the two-years-older sister who has aged dramatically. She gets to be sensual and wild and comical and sly in a variety of guises through the show. Jessica Clarke’s Shareen is a lot more grounded but this fits because her life moments are more mundane – listening to stories of awful men and dealing with Kyle, who keeps pushing her buttons and boundaries.
SHHHH tells stories of sex and intimacy and consent and violence and microaggressions and actual aggression and there is some joy and horror and humour at watching each scene unfold, but as a whole, dramatically it is shapeless. The kaleidoscope feels like it might find focus eventually but it never does.
- Keith Gow, Theatre First
Photo: Jodie Hutchinson