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Review: Birdcage Thursdays

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Of all the mental illnesses, it is perhaps hoarding that is most misunderstood. Often simply treated fodder for trashy reality TV shows, compulsive hoarding is actually a serious condition estimated to affect between two and five percent of adults. Those who suffer from the disorder often refuse to acknowledge the problem, making treatment difficult.

It is the effects of hoarding that is the subject of Birdcage Thursdays, a production by La Mama as part of this year’s Big West Festival. Performed in Big West Festival’s House, Birdcage Thursdays is an intimate tragicomedy that tells the story of an ageing mother and her adult daughter dealing with the impacts the mental illness can have in a social housing environment.

Helene (Genevieve Picot) lives in a house full of boxes, with only a bird to keep her company. On the surface she appears to be functioning well – she talks of her weekly bowls at Laverton North and calligraphy classes. But her adult daughter Catherine (Sophia Constantine) is worried about an impending inspection from the ominously titled Committee, who have warned Helene that if she doesn’t clean up her act, she’ll be evicted. Helene refuses to believe anything is wrong, dismissing the services of a carer hired by Catherine. As the inspection draws ever nearer, tensions soar between mother and daughter. Helene protests as Catherine throws out old clothes, newspapers and even pie-warmers. But the boxes aren’t just physical things; they are also memories, hopes, regrets.

Birdcage Thursdays’ playwright Sandra Fiona Long also stars as the show’s quasi-narrator, acting as a kind of one-woman Brechtian Greek chorus. She introduces the scenes and reads stage directions, an omnipresent overseer of the mess unfolding before the audience. The boxes scattered around the stage act as physical manifestations of the characters’ feelings; the narrator piles them up around the characters during nightmares, emphasising their claustrophobia and frustration. Walls are built, separating mother and daughter during their numerous arguments.

Caitlin Dullard’s direction is simple but effective. Helene and Catherine rarely look at each other, instead preferring to face the audience as they shout at one another over numerous phone calls. All the while Raya Slavin’s sound design, filled with classical music interspersed by rhythmic phone noises, highlights the disconnection between the priorities of mother and daughter. It’s disjointed and at times unnerving, but very effectively portrays the frustrations of the characters.

At just 50 minutes, Birdcage Thursdays doesn’t overstay its welcome. There’s no attempt to explain the causes of Helene’s hoarding; it is instead a study on loneliness and the loss of independence and dignity that comes with ageing. That it’s being shown in the Big West Festival House, which will go on to become a prototype for moveable social housing after the festival concludes, adds a layer of meaning that wouldn’t be present if it was simply performed in La Mama’s regular theatre. This is the power of festivals: alone Birdcage Thursdays stands as a tender portrayal of a mental illness, but in the context of a festival focused on the inner and outer world of the house, it is much more. 

– Will Dawson

Birdcage Thursdays showed as part of Big West Festival from November 24 – November 28.

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