REVIEW: In the Club by Patricia Cornelius

Annie is a fan of football. A fan of the boys from her team. She knows the line up, the injuries, every level of play. As a kid she felt like a bird in flight, agile, swift. She loved games. She loved her body and what it was capable of. At sixteen, that was taken away.

Olivia has had two boyfriends and never had a male friend. She’s never been in love. She used to think she’d travel and have adventures. But just like the women Annie mentions, she’s never lived her dreams. She was too scared. Scared of men.

Ruby likes to run with the boys, but she’s in control. She knows the rules. She knows how to turn men on and play the game, but she is the one who gets to choose. She loves sex. She loves sex with young, fit men. And she knows where to get it.

Three women walk into a club.

We already know these women so well. Where they come from, what they are looking for and tonight is the night they might find it. Want to find it. Tonight is the night. Let’s go.

A chorus of men. A pack of footballers. They enter the club like they own the place. They are on the prowl. On the hunt. Looking for sex. Looking for cunt. These are the men Annie is a fan of, Olivia is scared of and Ruby has fucked before.

A club is loud, noisy, sweaty, disconcerting. A place to drink and dance and get loose. Out of control. And in Patricia Cornelius’ In the Club, it’s a place to confront the predatory nature of men and the complex, complicated relationship between footballers and the women they target.

The play was originally commissioned in 2018 for the Adelaide Festival and this is its premiere in Melbourne, the home of football.

Theatre Works has been transformed into a nightclub. Red carpet. Red walls. Long vinyl couches at each end of the room. These are places to take a rest, meet someone and maybe struggle to get out of and away from. Bethany J Fellowes has used every inch of the space to create a sparse but epic battleground.

Niklas Pajanti’s lighting and Sound Engineering by Evan Drill & Daniel Gigliotti cement the audience in the nightclub, the heavy bass beating in our chests and ringing in our ears. This is the feeling of late nights, dark corners and a dancefloor that contains a multitude of possibilities.

Laid over the top of this monochrome space, Aron Murray’s video designs combine projections of intimate moments and a dazzling array of lines and shapes. Now the space feels like it could transform into anything – the space expands and contracts, depending on the lines and boundaries of his work.

The digital effects also work in concert with tracks by Jaguar Jonze (from her debut album), that transforms a text of bracing, confronting dialogue into that dreaded hybrid - a play with songs.

Director Kitan Petkovski’s choice to integrate songs into this piece is odd and distancing. While Jonze’s lyrics and melodies are affecting, they interrupt the flow of the script. Cornelius’ work is full of the kind of rhyme and wordplay that create action and thought and feeling – sometimes devastating – without the need to rely on theatrical trickery to boost the drama.

I think back to the opening of Cornelius’ play SHIT, which is a barrage of the word fuck and then a torrent of invective from the three characters of the piece. It’s confronting, challenging and hard to take. The performers brought those characters to life, but the text itself was brutal.

The text of In the Club contains a different kind of brutality but the language is equally charged and the tension is baked into the situation. Once we escape the relative safeness of three back-to-back monologues, the play itself could go anywhere.

When the men arrive on Cornelius’ page, they are indistinguishable from each other. Just MEN. The tautness of the dialogue, with its specific cadence, is the driving force. Line to line, scene to scene, we are trapped in that club. Those three women with a pack of men.

Each time a song drops in, the drama relaxes. Even though I enjoyed a lot of the songs and the digital art that went with them, I wanted to get back to the characters. The tightness of Cornelius’ work was  dissipated.

Her writing is still there, of course. And the trio of actors bringing the women to life are top notch.

Brigid Gallacher’s Olivia is the stand-out and she has the toughest material to deal with late in the play, but before that, she gets to have the kind of fun you can have when you meet someone for the first time – even if he’s a dickhead footballer.

Michelle Perera’s Ruby is confident, but tired of the games. She gets most of the funny moments, rebuffing another player because she can have her pick and she’s had this one already. Perera’s energy is exciting from moment to moment, and the history of this woman is in the way she carries herself and performs for the crowd.

Eva Seymour layers Annie with toughness and vulnerability, since we get to know the child before she’s assaulted by one of her heroes. Everything else is armour and a desperation to set things right.

But otherwise, the production smothers and strangles the text in strange ways. For every powerful moment of revelation, we get a song to unpack the subtext, or lyrics projected on the wall to overwhelm us with information.

Musician Jonze describes her debut album, Bunny Mode, as a work of collective strength and anger. Cornelius’ work is not that. The women in this play are weighed down by a society that brands them sluts and troublemakers and they carry internalised misogyny with them. They absolutely don’t share a collective strength, even if their anger is clear.

Where the play itself is knotty and unsentimental, this production want us to think it’s a story of female empowerment. But it’s not that simple. These things never are.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

In the Club is playing at Theatre Works until November 11th

Photo: James Reiser