Fortyfivedownstairs Theatre
01 May – 12 May
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A searing look at female homelessness in Australia over the age of 55, Way, written and performed by Sally McKenzie, is as powerful theatre as it is shocking reality. In short, it is distressing but important to watch what unfolds. McKenzie – an MTC stalwart in the early 1980s who moved back to Melbourne from Brisbane as COVID struck – is a natural and gifted performer and wordsmith. That is plain to see from the outset.

Photos by Darren Gill

The piece, which references the pandemic and its impact, starts and ends with her playing convivial homeless woman Julie. She approaches passers-by for money, so she can pay for shelter for the night. McKenzie then assumes the character of Lynne, who is passionate about making a television documentary focusing on the plight of homeless women over 55.

She has interviewed several of them, from diverse economic backgrounds and facing differing circumstances. What they have in common is that they want their stories told, as a salutary warning that any of us could suddenly find ourselves in their situation.

Lynne earns money teaching filmmaking, but her workload is being cut. Her rent is in arrears and she has to rely upon handouts from her dementia-ridden mother to makes ends meet. She misses her father, who died two years ago, and to whom she could always turn for advice and to bail her out. A television network shows interest in funding Lynne’s documentary, but no contracts have been signed. And then the key person at the network with whom Lynne is aligned suddenly leaves and circumstances change … for the worse.

Lynne’s teaching hours are further cut back. She gets more behind on the rent. Her mother shares the fact that Lyn is withdrawing money from her account with Lynne’s younger brother, a farmer named Stephen, who puts the hard word on Lynne. Also, among the women Lynne has interviewed and whose stories are revealed during Way, she recognises elements of a condition in herself that one has, namely ADHD. Lynne becomes more and more frantic and begins holding imaginary conversations with her dear-departed dad.

Meanwhile, through video clips and performance (mainly the latter), we take a deeper dive into the stories of the homeless women – Lily, Maysie and Zahra. We hear about how they found themselves in the situations they are in and how digging themselves out of those is far from easy or straightforward. Way is also peppered with factual video references to the increasingly desperate plight of the homeless in Australia, specifically focusing on women over 55.

The numbers are stark and the situation is worsening. Way is a timely reminder of that. I defy anyone not to be affected after seeing McKenzie’s impressive, naturalistic work. Street noise from sound designer J. David Franzke and mood lighting from Giovanna Yate Gonzalez add to the authenticity. I greatly applaud the endeavour (McKenzie has fashioned something special and enduring), while making two observations.

The video clips of the homeless women stating their circumstances are only short. Nevertheless, I don’t think it is necessary for McKenzie to then repeat some of those words in character. Secondly, save for the final vignette, Way finishes on a positive note. While hope is obviously important, in real life not all ends well. Maudlin though this may sound, I would have preferred a combination of positives and negatives in reflecting upon the characters’ outcomes.

Nevertheless, Way is a heartfelt and significant work, which needs to be seen .. and acted upon. Some may regard the subject matter as a hard sell. I urge you not to be deterred. Rather, embrace the content and the craftsmanship. Directed by Sean Mee, who is also responsible for the dramaturgy, Way is playing at fortyfivedownstairs until 12th May, 2024.

Alex First

Alex First

Alex First believes all people have a story to tell, if only a good playwright can prize it out of them. Alex has a natural curiosity about the world and believes a strong narrative, or narrative with music, can open the door to subjects about which he knows little. Like his parents before him, theatre is his passion – a passion with emotional resonance, one that moves and excites him. He brings decades’ experience as an arts’ connoisseur to his role as a critic.
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