REVIEW: Shrapnel by Natalie Gamsu with Ash Flanders

When Natalie Gamsu visited Spain and saw Flamenco dancers for the first time, she cried. She ugly cried. There was snot. As a performer, she was transported. As a person, she was moved. Her husband, who has no feelings, asked her, “Do you think you were a Flamenco dancer in a past life?” She’s not sure, but she’s glad he asked.

Shrapnel is an eighty-minute one-woman show recounting Gamsu’s life and the cultures and expectations that bear down upon her. She was raised by her parents to be small, because they had been raised in the shetls of Eastern Europe to be small as well.

Gamsu grew up in South Africa and Namibia during apartheid. If the houses of her ancestors were pale on pale and a whiter shade of… part of Gamsu’s goal in life is to find colour everywhere she goes. Club 58 in Durban in the 70s, where she performed amongst a kaleidoscope of queer performers. Selling intimate-apparel at a high end boutique in Manhattan. Here, there and everywhere.

That said, she’s dressed all in black for this show. Is this the Melbourne influence? After living all over the world, perhaps settling here has made her life a little bit monochrome. Her day job, after all, is in customer care at a fruit canning company in Ripponlea, another shetl.

The stories are sometimes accompanied by songs from her career as a cabaret artist or from her life growing up Jewish in Southern Africa. Gamsu’s voice is powerful and it’s a shame she doesn’t sing more.

She jumps from story to story without worrying about chronology. It’s not quite stream of consciousness; the connective tissue is more deliberate than that. The collage forms a kind of poetry.

In between full stories, there are mentions of a drowning, a shooting, a bomb in a telephone box. A bus in Manhattan with “Don’t Do It” written on its roof. These hints at other stories she doesn’t have time to tell make the show feel full and rich. You cannot tell the whole story of one person in an hour, but these allusions give the impression of a life well lived.

Shout out to co-writer Ash Flanders and director Stephen Nicolazzo who have helped Gamsu create this work. In a show that is so personal, it’s hard to really know what bit Ash might have written – but he’s done his own one-man shows, so I’m sure that guiding hand was essential. Flanders and Nicolazzo have made sure everything feels of Gamsu and by Gamsu.

Shrapnel is a mosaic of things that have made Natalie Gamsu who she is. Her storytelling style is captivating. Her singing is powerful. And her collection of stories kept the audience laughing or awed or shocked. And while it felt complete, it left me wanting more.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Shrapnel is on at Fortyfive Downstairs this week only

Photo: Tuvya Garfinkael