In Lally Katz’s latest play, the MTC fails to capture the dramatist’s magic, despite fine performances by two grand dames of the stage. By Peter Craven.

MTC’s ‘Minnie & Liraz’

Nancye Hayes and Sue Jones star in ‘Minnie & Liraz’.
Nancye Hayes and Sue Jones star in ‘Minnie & Liraz’.

Lally Katz is a playwright with a lot of talent and some quantity of unevenness. In the past few years we’ve seen the talent shine. In 2014, Neighbourhood Watch, starring Robyn Nevin and directed by Simon Stone, was an ambitious, not entirely co-ordinated play, but it was rich enough to allow Nevin to give one of the performances of her life: wonderfully funny and deeply moving at the same time. And Stone’s direction worked to give it constant colour and movement. You long for both Nevin and Stone in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s half-baked production of Katz’s new and very talented play Minnie & Liraz, and maybe for Miriam Margolyes as well, who did Neighbourhood Watch in Adelaide. This, though, is a bit unfair on Nancye Hayes and Sue Jones, who do all they can and more, as does Rhys McConnochie, in the face of Anne-Louise Sarks’s raw, drab and hapless production. Even the blocking stumbles so that you feel the director is way out of her depth and a promising play with a fair dash of Katz’s natural sparkle and buoyancy is being diminished by a controlling intelligence with no feeling for this kind of theatre. Everything is featureless and ugly. One of the roles is execrably performed, while another is a long way from excellent, though through all of this you feel the energy of Katz’s talent even if it’s constantly battling with her vulgarity and lapses of taste.

But it’s not her fault she zigzags. Neighbourhood Watch is good enough writing to provide great theatre and Timeshare in 2015, with the superb Marg Downey as an older woman losing her faculties, was a delicious and fantasy-saturated comedy streaked with sadness and given a rather beautiful production in the minor key by the Malthouse Theatre. Minnie & Liraz, by contrast, is a kind of Lettice and Lovage on the skids and it’s a pity Sarks is such a savant of the savage dances-in-underpants school of theatre that she leaves it looking threadbare if not naked.

It all takes place merrily enough in a retirement home. Hayes, kicking 90 and somewhat hoity-toity, is married to the arthritic McConnochie and has a school headmistress granddaughter, late 30s, who’s never settled with a bloke. Sue Jones, equally aged and dashing about in an automated cart, has a nephew who is equally unworldly but a whiz of a physicist. So good, so corny, but still the material is a potential winner. Jones’s Liraz is intent on getting Hayes’s Minnie, the dabbest hand around at bridge, to become her partner in the national elderly bridge tournament, and they both want to get their eligible charges hitched. Or rather, Minnie is willing to have dealings with the loudmouthed yobess if she can effect a match for her gormless granddaughter.

It’s a good dramatic plan and each leading lady brings a touch of her impressive and distinct style to the contrasted roles, often to amusing and sometimes to hilarious effect. Hayes is very “refeened” and has a potentially very funny way of sniffing the air for untoward smells and intimations. At times though – and in the absence of any apparent help from the director – she’s just a bit stilted, as if she were importing the mannerisms of a more coherent role. She’s a great lady of the musical theatre and sometimes the performance has that element of broad outlines and approximate accentuations that is a bit more tolerable when the performer can burst into song – as Hayes has been doing since Sweet Charity, 50 years ago.

But this is not to undervalue her talent. When things go sadly wrong at the penultimate moment she stares at the audience with the empty bottomlessly bereft eyes of a natural born tragedienne or melancholy clown and it makes you weep for how she’s been misused in this production.

Jones is her nemesis and fated comrade-in-arms and she comes on as a tooting mistress of every bit of ocker charm and broad comedy she can muster in an improbable venue. It’s a sumptuous and irresistible animation of grey power and if Sarks were capable of providing a habitation for it that allowed for just a bit more sense of reality, it would carry us to the heights of theatre happiness. But for great snatches of Minnie & Liraz we feel as if we are watching a rehearsal by some spirited old-timers of a dashing play of uncertain taste actually being performed in some dull and dank waiting room of the sort of establishment in question, though marvellously underendowed and therefore nothing like the luxurious joint referred to.

It’s watchable because a fair bit of it is witty and Hayes and Jones glow and glitter and slide and gush like the old pros they are. But it’s a bit of a pity this show – which has plenty of commercial vitamin, as well as some dark elements, and beset with a touch of hysteria – wasn’t given a production that would subdue Katz’s excesses and give a head to the chutzpah that is clearly meant to sing out in this savage but potentially gleaming farce.

None of which is to deny that Minnie & Liraz has plenty that’s arresting about it. McConnochie is absolutely convincing as Hayes’s husband, and by the grace of God he also has a beautiful monologue that is superbly delivered. I should add that Virginia Gay as the schoolmistress melancholic is pretty good and Peter Paltos as her would-be swain is rather less so.

Georgina Naidu as the woman who runs the rest home, and doubles in other roles, is, alas, consistently awful: loud, super-confident and an embarrassment to behold. Not a sin against nature, but not, distinctly, any kind of asset. Mel Page’s sets and costumes make one shudder and twitch and the production looks, moment by moment, as if the director is thinking of something else, something grim. The upshot is a play that consistently entertains in a minimal sense, while never transfiguring its subject matter into any form of delight or strangeness. The surprise ending is slashingly bold but the director seems to get the tone wrong.

By sheer force of the senior talent on stage, this production is likely to settle down and get better, but Lally Katz and her veterans should have got better service from the Melbourne Theatre Company. Neighbourhood Watch, which Belvoir St Theatre produced and was bought in by MTC, and the Malthouse Timeshare left Minnie & Liraz for dead by working out a dramatic idiom weird enough to capture Katz’s magic.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2017 as "Tired Liraz not a giver".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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