Perth Festival review: Ursula Martinez, A Family Outing– 20 Years On ·
State Theatre Centre Studio Underground, February 8 ·
Review by Mark Naglazas ·
When the advertising for a show features its creator and leading lady stark naked (albeit with pixelation in all the right places) and her co-star is her elderly mother, who has the beginnings of dementia, you brace yourself for an evening of confrontation and confession.
However, the marketing for A Family Outing – 20 Years On is the first of a series of marvellous rug pulls expertly executed by British LGBTQ diva Ursula Martinez as she toys with the audience’s expectations, so relentlessly that your lasting memory is of a show about putting on a show.
From the moment Martinez steps into the spotlight and explains she will screen a video of the earlier iteration of A Family Outing in which she sat on a “crappy sofa arguing with her mum and dad” through to the final stages when she provides her own review of the new show (“a platform for marginalised communities” she boasts), this is meta-theatre at its most joyous, accessible and human.
However, the breezy, knockabout approach disguises Martinez’s deeper purpose – to examine the toll taken by the passing of time and, in particular, the impact of dementia.
Instead of dissecting the disease in a scientific and sociological sense, as is familiar in today’s fact-based narratives, Martinez uses the idea of a show that constantly meanders off-script as a wonderfully apt metaphor for the mind struggling to hang on to reality.
And by having the previous version of the show running in the background, in which we see Martinez and her Spanish-born mother Milagros and late father Albert Lee, we’re thrust into an echo chamber in which past and present become confused in the same way they must in a mind slipping away.
Milagros is a long way from being put into full-time care. She is a vivacious and funny stage presence as she fully engages with her daughter’s playful theatrics. “It’s really boring,” whines Milagros when Ursula leaves the stage to get a pen (yes, that’s about as dramatic as the action gets).
But a part of the fun of A Family Outing – 20 Years On is working out how much of the show is scripted and how much of it is improvised. When Ursula’s sister Facetimes in from the UK I wasn’t sure if it was live or if Martinez is so expert at playing casual that she’s turned a pre-recorded moment into something spontaneous-seeming.
Again, this slippage between scripted and improvised action, while commonplace in film and television, works perfectly as a metaphor for a mind struggling to remember the common script of humanity.
But it is not just Milagros who is battling to recall the facts of her own family history. Martinez is just as willing to poke gentle fun at her own mental decline, which she illustrates with a hilarious black-and-white home movie-ish recreation of how Milagros and Albert met and fell in love (a really cute story involving her teacher-father’s obsession with all things physics).
In every image of Milagros she is wearing a mantilla, a traditional Spanish lacy headdress. She’s wearing it while vacuuming, while going on a date and while lying in bed crying about Albert and begging her own mother for advice.
When Milagros sees herself dressed in something straight out Semana Santa in her southern Spanish homeland she gags. “I’ve never worn one of those in my life. I’ve never seen anyone wear one. I don’t think they’ve worn them since the 19th century,” scolds Milagros.
It’s this delightful struggle between two women who deeply love each other that is the heart of A Family Outing – 20 Years On. Can you imagine any other performer taking her mother on tour and putting her on stage so she can keep an eye on her? Or is that part of the show? Who cares. It’s funny and touching and, by the end, richly meaningful.
Pictured top: Milagros (left) and Ursula Martinez (right). Photo: Toni Wilkinson.