Reviews/Perth Festival/Theatre

Dear Mum …

22 February 2021

Claire Coleman is moved by the retelling of the honest and extraordinarily emotional stories of real mothers and offspring in Mama Stitch.

Mama Stitch, Whiskey & Boots ·
Midland Junction Arts Centre, 20 February, 2021 ·

I’ve sometimes wondered whether it’s a wise move to judge a performance’s success by how many members of the audience cry.

But what can I say? Laughter and tears hover nearby, on the audience’s collective breath, in shows that trade in shared human experiences.

If you enjoy a performance that makes you Feel All The Things, Mama Stitch, by Perth-based performance company Whiskey & Boots, will not disappoint. It re-enacts the real-life stories of Midland residents’ earliest relationships: the ones they share with their mothers.

Tea and toast are offered before the performance, foreshadowing the sustenance-based nurturing that often features in the maternal tales to follow. During this time, the audience is free to wander the softly-lit, Hill’s hoist-bedecked space. Designed in collaboration with visual artist Molly Werner, the set is festooned with letters previous audience members have written to their mothers.

Letters to their mums from audience members decorate the set of ‘Mama Stitch’. Photo supplied

Once the show begins, its stories are conveyed via a “headphone verbatim performance”. The work’s creators and performers, Georgia King and Mark Storen, wear headphones and repeat, word-for-word, the recordings they are listening to, which are of Midland-based volunteers chronicling their diverse and complex experiences of being mothered, and of the women who conducted those labours of love.

King’s characterisations of the local people she represents are enthralling. Through minute shifts in her pronunciation, delivery or poise, she shows whether the original storyteller was young or old, easy-going or reserved, playful or serious.

An open, respectful daughter describes a selfless Indian mother who can’t endorse her child’s homosexuality. A proud woman with a theatrical drawl recalls her mother cooking fried polony, and advises the audience to forgive themselves and each other.

Storen’s performances share this chameleon-like quality, though there is less variation in the more rambunctious characters he voices.

Sharing the stage to play sisters with a Cool Mum, King and Storen bounced energetically off each other’s unfinished sentences with such alacrity that, after the show, I overheard one of the real sisters whose story they had told – and who happened to be in attendance – remark that she didn’t realise they interrupted one another so much.

It is not only the reality-based storytelling that undergirds the success of Mama Stitch. Yes, the stories are real. But the show’s beating heart is the palpable dignity with which Whiskey & Boots bears them. Each story is a unique treasure, valued as much for its flaws as for its finery. King closes the show by playing a kid with big-hearted empathy for his mum, who “yells ’cos we make her yell … she yells a lot”. But as the kid puts it, “She warms up my heart.”

The stories’ authenticity and uniqueness are reinforced via accompanying bluegrass-style responses by musicians Holly Garvey and Tom Garvey, joined by Storen when he is not otherwise occupied. At times the musical interludes seem like incidental backing for the stories. That is, until all of a sudden they aren’t there, and the work they were doing to set the tone is brought into stark relief.

The point at which the audience is plunged abruptly into silence highlights the key moment in King’s retelling of the stories of three Yamatji women. Daughter, mother and grandmother remain connected by blood and by longing for one another despite having been forcibly and repeatedly separated by racist Australian governments’ policies of Indigenous assimilation.

Sitting beside my own mum, I was struck to the quick by all the ways in which I lead a privileged existence, not the least of which is that I can take the security of her presence for granted. I was not the only person in the audience shedding a quiet, useless tear for the First Nations’ mothers and children who have tried desperately across decades to find their way back to one another. In a show full of powerful and important stories, this one stood out as the kind of cross-cultural beacon of understanding that might prompt the stirrings of empathy needed for meaningful reconciliation in this country.

Whether or not you are someone who cries at the theatre, Mama Stitch gives its audiences the gift of recognising themselves in the stories of others.

Although the Perth Festival season of Mama Stitch has concluded, there are more opportunities to see the work coming up:

19 March – 11 April 2021, Wilkinson Homestead Museum, Thornlie
30 April – 16 May 2021, Kalamunda Performing Arts Centre

Whiskey & Boots are seeking stories from members of these communities – head to their Facebook Page to find out more.

Pictured top: Whiskey & Boots are, from left, Georgia King, Tom Garvey, Holly Garvey, and Mark Storen. who swings between performing and playing music in ‘Mama Stitch’. Photo supplied

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Author —
Claire Coleman

Dr Claire Coleman is a pop musicologist, choral conductor and musician. She trained classically in piano, but wrote her doctorate on nostalgia in indie folk, and continues to lecture remotely in pop music studies in Berlin and London. Claire compares the high of bullying strangers into singing to doing hypothetical illicit drugs, so watch out or you might end up an unwitting participant in one of her choral adventures.

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