Part odd couple comedy, part romance, and part sports drama, the new play from Lally Katz – one of Australia’s most produced contemporary playwrights – tackles the highest of all arenas: the Australian bridge scene, as told through a suburban Melbourne retirement village.
Minnie (Nancye Hayes), with her neat clothes and smartly brushed hair, was born to play bridge. Liraz (Sue Jones), with her mop of curls, loud outfits and louder shoes, knows that to play the game, you have to work at it. When Minnie’s bridge partner dies, Liraz wants in. The price? Matchmaking between the grandchildren: mid-30s, single, childless, and taking far too long.
Mel Page’s set is a remarkable collection of shades of peach: carpet, walls, chairs, lampshades, plant stands and tablecloths. It’s in the outstandingly unexceptional misty watercolour flower paintings that adorn the walls of Minnie and Morris’ room; it’s in both tones of the two-tone satin jackets of team “Bridge Burners”. And then, against this, comes the shock of a green bridge playing mat.
Director Anne-Louise Sarks holds the comedy of the piece under biting pressure, always pushing her actors further into the joke and the characterisation. Much of the comedy is broad character work, and Hayes and Jones have the time of their life playing these outrageous women. But Sarks also finds the humour in smaller moments, like the near impeccable timing of the reverse warning beep of Liraz’s mobility scooter.
Katz never shies away from the gallows humour inherent in a retirement village – nor does she ever skip a chance for a playing cards pun. But she still finds moments for pathos, the tinges of a life of regrets growing in prominence as the years roll on.
But as Morris (Rhys McConnochie) sits in his remorse, his wife Minnie tries to push past it, using retirement to truly be her own person. She finds the feminism of her granddaughter, Rachel (Virginia Gay), strange and unknowable; she is scornful of Rachel’s focus on a career, which has left her without great-grandchildren. And yet the politics of feminism runs deep through both Minnie and Liraz: Liraz, widowed, has had to take control of her own life; Minnie creates richness away from her husband, succeeding in bridge with zeal. They look back at lives spent catering to husbands and children, and wonder what else might’ve been.
Unlike much of the work Katz is known for, Minnie & Liraz has both feet firmly placed in our world, never veering off into magical realism. And yet, the play questions if maybe our own world can be more fantastical if we just look at it the right way, if our own universes can expand just by our actions and our loves – of each other, or of the game.
There is so much to like about this production, which feels to be one play before it suddenly whips around with a sting in its tail. At first, Stefan Gregory’s music – oboes and strings in the digestible phrases of a BBC melodrama – feels out of place, but it becomes perhaps the best musical foreshadowing I’ve experienced in the theatre.
And yet there are falters along the way, the work occasionally feeling padded and the build-up too elongated. There is a sharper, snappier and, yes, shorter play in here, if only Katz can free it from some of the expositions and slow meanders that the play occasionally gets caught on. The work is at its finest when it is barrelling forward with speed, and there is more speed to be found in it yet.
The uninitiated are unlikely to walk away from Minnie & Liraz with much more of an idea of bridge than they had walking in. The pair discuss strategy, rehashing old games, imaging new hands and new wins, all through a terminology that could almost be another language. But, like all good sports dramas, it’s not about how well they play the game but with how much heart they play it. Minnie and Liraz possess this heart in spades.
• Minnie and Liraz plays until 24 June at Arts Centre Melbourne