REVIEW: Recollection by Georgia Ketels

When you lose someone, you lose them quickly and slowly. After they die, you start to forget what they sounded like, what they looked like, the shape of them.

Olivia has lost her daughter Molly and perhaps, in this age of smart phones and voice messages, we don’t lose the image or the sound of loved ones. We have Facebook and Instagram and videos and all the possessions of their life. What Olivia is missing and trying to recreate is the smell of Molly. Her scent.

Smell is known to trigger long-ago experiences, because “odors take a direct route to the limbic system, including the amygdala and hippocampus – the regions related to emotion and memory”. (What the nose knows, by Colleen Walsh – The Harvard Gazette)

In the midst of grief, people scatter ashes at important places or turn their loved ones into precious stones to carry around with them. They read old emails and texts and watch videos and scroll through their socials. Of course you might try to capture that ineffable perfume of someone.

Georgia Ketels’ play, Recollection, is a finely-tuned piece on grief and loss and this production at Fortyfive Downstairs uses nearly all our senses to tell the story of Olivia and Molly and Molly’s friend (and secret girlfriend) Jenna.

Where design in theatre is usually restricted to set and costume, lighting and - more and more often these days, digital projection, our sense of smell is usually left alone. Often, my olfactory sense is only ever triggered by cigarettes or theatrical haze, though I have seen a number of shows where a working cooktop has provided the smells of food to centre us in the heart of a home – most successfully in Belvoir’s production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.

Ketels has designed a play around a conceit that may not be true, but feels true. In the aftermath of a sudden death, people do anything to hold onto their loved ones for as long as they can. And Recollection isn’t just about smells, but has employed a Scent Artist (Erin Adams) to elevate the show to another level.

The play takes place over Molly’s last months, intercut with Olivia’s story of trying to capture that one thing that might make her daughter feel more there than gone. Molly and Jenna are wonderfully drawn characters, expertly played by Molly Holohan and Mish Keating. We feel their sense of joy in the world, even as Molly struggles with coming to terms with her sexuality, or Jenna deals with her sick father.

Olivia, in contrast, is quietly restrained. Eve Morey plays her as buttoned-up and, later, as barely holding it together. I wish we’d been allowed to understand her a little more, but we absolutely feel her grief and desperation once Molly is gone.

The fourth character, Ariana, is the creator of scents, who is trying to help Olivia capture Molly’s essence. These scenes are at once very moving and sometimes uncomfortably funny. It’s a shame the character of Ariana is mostly a voice of exposition, because she holds such a vital place in the structure of the show. A little more insight into her might have made these scenes feel more alive.

Molly and Jenna’s scenes together are rich and complicated and feel so lived-in and real. Their conversations are so perfectly of their teenage years, both in the humour and drama. Ketels has created a really wonderful portrait of queer girls finding their voices.

Design-wise, the show is arresting on first viewing the wall of shelves and draws and cupboards, nicknacks and glassware. It’s filled with the props of Molly and Olivia’s life, always at hand for them, but always there for us to see. Even as Olivia struggles to find the ingredients to recreate Molly’s particular odor, we can see all the other bits and pieces of a life scattered across our view.

Eloise Kent’s set is versatile and surprising; beds and tables and countertops pop in and out. Her costumes give us real insight into the characters, too. Emma Lockhart-Wilson’s painterly lighting creates playing spaces that are sometimes intimate and oftentimes exposing.

Director Cathy Hunt has shaped this whole endeavour to embrace the joys and sadnesses of life. She has navigated some tricky moments in the script to make each moment ring true.

Some of the moving of set and props feels fiddly. As a nod to the character of Ariana, the stage hand is also dressed in a lab-coat, but some of the times they can be spotted behind the set are distracting.

But these are minor quibbles in a production that realises a beautiful script in an inventive and emotionally satisfying way. I look forward to whatever Georgia Ketels writes next, because Recollection is smart and moving.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Recollection is on at Fortyfive Downstairs until July 7

Photos: Shane Palmer