The Basement (fmr. Silo)
Sept 16-20 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

SOMETIMES a decision is so life-changing, so irreversible that it resonates down through the family line, affecting everyone who comes after. Such an event happened in Sophie Dingeman's family in 1907 when her great-grandmother Grace Oakeshott decided to fake her own death and flee to New Zealand with her lover Walter Reeve, to start a new life. In doing so she left behind a promising political career as one of the first women elected to the London City Council, a remarkable feat in those times; her whole family including a much loved younger sister; and a husband, Harold.

The question of why she made this decision, of course, will never be fully known. Grace Oakeshott and all who knew her personally are long since gone. Papers and photos can offer only fragments of the whole. So drama seems a valid conduit to figuring out some version of the “truth” – and maybe to lay to rest some family ghosts.

Grace, the play, starts at the end, with Grace’s faked death by drowning. The play then goes back to approximately one year before, when Grace (Nicci Reuben) is campaigning as a candidate for the Fabian Party. Reuben plays Grace as self-possessed, intelligent and rather quirky (there’s a distinct obsession with teapots). We see her trying to convince a largely unsupportive crowd of such dangerously socialist policies as a vote for all (men, though she tries to convince hubby Harold that the idea of votes for women should be raised) and equal property rights. The ideals of the Fabian party are picked over in some detail and there are attempts to recreate the atmosphere of the political rally. Despite the energy injected by Michael Downey (in fine schizophrenic form as one of several characters including a Tory politician and a heckler), I felt a denser soundscape was needed to really push across the excitement and tension of the campaign.

That being said, the political details were far less intriguing than the personal relationships, for me. The big one, of course, is the relationship between Grace and her lover Walter (a dishy and appropriately dreamy Andrew Waterson). Walter makes a late entrance for a key character, allowing time for the other two main characters – husband Harold and sister Amber – to stake their claims on Grace.

Harold (Brian Moore) is earnest, diligent and ultimately confused and lost – a subtle performance from Moore, who extracts a fair amount of sympathy from the audience. Amber (Jo Lees) is Grace’s firebrand younger sister. Impatient with the snail’s-pace progression of rights for women, she takes matters into her own hands – by getting pregnant to H.G. Wells. Yes, that H.G. Wells. The appearance of a well-known historical figure in the narrative throws the play into stronger relief against the canvas of the broad political and social changes taking place at the turn of the 20th century. Though the story remains very much Dingemans’ family story, we sense it is a story within a much larger one, one bound up in the formation of colonial New Zealand. The emotional conflict of Amber – whose ideas of emancipation are far ahead of her time but who still finds herself hopelessly in thrall to an undeserving ex-lover – is a parallel story to what will befall Grace. This struggle between head and heart is what Dingemans seeks to understand in her play-as-exploration.

The staging is a blend of naturalistic and surreal. Teapots and the pouring of tea serve as some sort of sex-substitute, a witty commentary on English prudishness perhaps. Reuben plays Grace with a birdlike gravity, perching on chairs, tables and even a swinging shelf. A small table serves as everything from a coffin to (bizarrely) a uterus. At times this overreliance on stylised use of furniture becomes too obvious and interrupts the flow, at other times it can be appreciated as clever and poetic.

This play is The Rebel Alliance’s fourth production and the first not written or directed by a member of the core group (Downey, Anders Falstie-Jensen and Catherine Nola). The Rebel Alliance has shown a good instinct in the past for producing quirky, unpredictable and enjoyable theatre pieces. Grace is no exception.

Dingemans has made an honest, soul-searching attempt to dissect her great-grandparent’s love story. It’s clear that a huge amount of research has gone into this play. By the end, the big question of why Grace ran away with Walter – giving up everything she has fought for and more tragically, all future contact with her family – is at least partially answered for the audience. It is commendable that Dingemans does not try to influence our judgement. Was what Grace did brave and noble, or foolhardy and selfish? Why would an otherwise intelligent, proud woman – an early feminist, someone we women should have been proud of – give up everything she had for love? Whichever way it goes in the post-show discussion, it’s a story that will hang around in your head for a while.