Crimes of the Heart, by Beth Henley | Directed by Janine Watson

Imperial Productions & Red Line Artistry | Old Fitz Theatre (https://www.oldfitztheatre.com) | Until 8 April

I’ve only been to one other production at the Old Fitz Theatre in Woolloomooloo. It was Cock and it was fabulous. I wrote then: “Cock is engorged and throbbing with entertainment and thought-provoking action.” I also commented: “This was far from a turgid tragedy or sudsy soap opera … [the] writing is sharp and rapid-fire, finding the funny within emotional upheaval and modern-day angst.”

It was the first time I had ventured into the Old Fitzroy Hotel, home of the theatre. I remember a bright but sleepy Sunday afternoon, and stumbling upon this gorgeously old-fashioned watering hole full of obviously local old-timers having their Sunday session before returning home to, presumably, their meat and three veg. I felt as though I’d been transported back in time and it was hard to fathom that a Mardi Gras show was to open under the same roof as these crusty conservatives.

Flash forward to opening night for Crimes of the Heart. The Guest and I trudged down from Kings Cross station on a wet and wild Friday night, flimsy umbrella flapping in resentment. At the hotel we jostled with the young, funky urban crowd to get our pinots and sat to people-watch.

What a different crowd it was to that Sunday afternoon a couple of years ago. This looked more like an audience for something called Cock! One weather-worn man and his dog sat under the eaves on the footpath, drinking his beer, reminding me of the locals I’d mingled with that first time.

I started to suspect that the choice of play may be very different, too. Crimes of the Heart, I vaguely remembered, was a film from the ’80s starring Diane Keaton, Sissy Spacek and Jessica Lange. “Turgid tragedy or sudsy soap opera” were words that I feared I may have to use in my review. Set in the South and having been turned into what I assumed was a movie-of-the-week kind of production, it had given me certain expectations of what I could expect.

Imagine my joy when those expectations were overturned.

From the moment the lighting (Alexander Berlage) and sound (Thomas E Moore) transition began, marking the start of the show, I was engaged. The warm glow of sunrise almost imperceptibly filled the small stage as the house lights slowly dimmed. Birdsong sounded, so realistically that it transported me back to times I have visited my country relatives when I was a child. There was no rush. We were given time to wake up in this new world we would inhabit for a couple of hours. We had time to peruse the country kitchen we were becoming a part of.

And then we were off.

Like Cock, the “writing is sharp and rapid-fire, finding the funny within emotional upheaval”. But it’s not so much “modern-day angst” as the timelessness of human emotion embodied within the three sisters before us.

Lenny (Laura Pike), the eldest who has become the rock of the family, the lynch-pin, the grand-daughter who has never strayed from home.

Meg (Amanda McGregor), the prodigal sister who tried to escape her demons but only took them with her.

And Babe (Renae Small), the baby of the family who has suffered the most but borne it the best. She’s in trouble with the law — having shot her husband because she “didn’t care for his face” — so Lenny calls Meg back to the fold to help. What follows is a beautifully written exploration of universal family dynamics and personal revelations with a lot of fun along the way. I haven’t laughed so much in a theatre for a long time.

It is an absolute joy to watch such wonderful actors give us the gift of these characters. Their timing is impeccable (mostly — it is opening night, after all), and they can turn from tragedy to comedy and back again, with pathos and bathos.

They are ably supported by Amy Usherwood, whose Chick is a perfectly rendered character we all know — that seemingly caring but bitchy cousin we love to hate and never quite trust — and Caleb Alloway (Barnett, young lawyer and potential paramour).

As we walked back to the train station, I wished I could have spent more time with them, so much had they grown on me.

The Guest is an actor who has never played the Old Fitz but has seen many productions there. He commented before the show that he loves the space and imagines it would be a great opportunity to perform there. The way he put it was he imagines “it would demand an honesty” from the actors as it’s such a small space, and that is exactly what we received from this cast, in buckets.

I just hope that they received the same honesty from us. They earned it.

At least one thumbs up. Two if possible.

Above: Laura Pike, Amanda McGregor and Amy Usherwood. Below: Amanda McGregor and Renae Small. Images: Rupert Reid.

Caleb Alloway.

Rowan Davie.