Maureen: Harbinger of Death
Written and Performed by Jonny Hawkins
Riverside National Theatre of Parramatta
Originally Published at: Maureen: Harbinger of Death - Riverside Theatres (NSW) (theatrethoughtsaus.online)
Maureen: Harbinger of Death is an ode to friendship and storytelling. It’s a walk down memory lane with your favourite Grandma – the fun one who’d slip a $5 note into your hand on your way out, or who’d always send you home with baked goods. It’s spending an evening chatting with the kind of friend who fills your heart and replenishes your soul and tends to make you snort by saying the most inappropriate things.
The stage is set with an armchair and side table draped with a velvety black and gold patterned fabric lit under a spotlight. The fabric runs from the ceiling to the ground, dressing the chair, and spilling across the floor almost to the audience to make up the wallpaper, carpet, and furniture upholstery. The table is adorned with a vintage cigarette case and lighter, some beautiful old jewellery, an antique metal Arnott’s biscuit tin, a tube of lippy and a glass of water.
Photos by Clare Hawley
Jonny Hawkins enters the stage, casually dressed in jeans, a turtleneck, and Crocs. He addresses the audience, reminding us to turn off our phones and enjoy the show. In this intimate venue, with the broken fourth wall and the house lights still up, being able to see those around us really reinforced the feeling of being in your friends living room.
Hawkins talks to us about some very special friendships he’s had with older women and reflects on the sense of belonging and kinship he felt, especially with his friend Maureen. He explains that the work is based on the stories she’d tell, acknowledging there are some embellishments, but also some very true tales! Hawkins approaches the table and chair, puts on some lipstick, earrings and necklaces and lifts a large sheet of draped fabric from the armchair. Wrapping the fabric around their waist and doing it up into long skirt, we now see Maureen; Hawkins’ friend in her late eighties who lives in Kings Cross.
The transition from Johnny to Maureen was so seamless and believable, and it wasn’t because of the jewellery or make up. It was the contrast in physicality which really sold the character for me; the way she moved, the stiffness and pain in her hips when getting comfortable in the chair, the facial expressions that are so specific to hilarious old ladies, and nuanced movements like gently opening her hand and soothing her arthritic fingers to grasp the cigarette. The physical characterisation was perfection.
Puffing on her cigarette, Maureen reminisces about her years living in Kings Cross, over the road from Buckingham Palace. Not the Buckingham Palace you’re thinking of, but the ones scattered throughout Kings Cross; the ones always filled with queens. We hear stories of her uncanny knack for knowing when someone’s time is coming. She reads from her journal, then passes it around the room, asking audience members to read out a name from the list on her page. The diary lists each of her friends who’d passed, and for each name that was read out, she’d tell us about a time they spent together. Maureen shared about how she liked to make sure her friends would look their best when found after they’d passed – making sure they’d be remembered not in some daggy nightie, but in satin sheets, and beautiful clothing. While recounting these memories with delight, the metal Arnott’s tin was being handed around the audience, there were individually wrapped bikkies for everyone!
There were a few brief moments in the text which felt slightly inauthentic and more of a male writers’ voice, but Hawkins’ on-stage mastery pulled me straight back into the story each time without fail. Hawkins has a very still stage presence; gentle, understated yet clear and articulate. His stagecraft was sublime, the timing impeccable, making for an extremely engaging performance.
Supported by a crew of Nell Ranney, Isabel Hudson, Nick Schlieper, Steve Toulmin and Jo Dyer, Maureen: Harbinger of Death is a beautifully made piece of art that will make you laugh, and cry, and question the things you thought you knew about old ladies! It’s no mean feat to perform a one (wo)man show that has no music or dancing, solely spoken word from start to finish, but Jonny Hawkins executed the show brilliantly in this very polished and well-rounded performance.