From Here To Infirmity
Written & performed by Sue Ingleton. Melbourne International Comedy Festival. La Mama Courthouse, Carlton VIC. 29 March – 8 April 2018
Before the show begins, it’s already begun. An old bloke in a lightweight sports jacket, a sporty, narrow brim hat and a ‘pencil’ moustache roams about the audience waiting to enter the theatre. He seems to know a few of us and isn’t shy about saying so. “Jeez, Michael,’ he says to me, ‘you’re getting fat, mate. Tsk.’ Then, turning to The Companion, he tells her she’s beautiful, and me that I’m a lucky man. There’s just a touch of the salacious about the compliment – but that’s the trick of this persona: part old stager, part bewildered grumbler, part dirty old man.
He is, of course, ‘Bill’, a character created by Sue Ingleton back in 1981, and now she inhabits him completely. She is him. If you left aside or didn’t notice the satirical edge you might think she really is an old bloke called Bill. After risking the illusion that Bill is ‘real’, Ms Ingleton – as Bill – complains about the problems of the ‘technology’ in the show we’re about to see – and then he(she) leads us inside. The performance is unbroken as Bill just rabbits on. He moves some of the audience to better seats down the front and complains again about the technology – meaning the slide projector that shows us – risking the illusion again – the history of Bill since his invention. (The slides are too small to see properly, but maybe they’ll fix that problem.) Bill launches into a monologue with frequent fits and starts, interrupting himself to ask stage manager Bela, on the desk, ‘What was I gonna talk about next?’ It is all calculated as can be, but afterwards Ms Ingleton confides that I must know what it’s like on an opening night, when you’ve had a totally shit day and you just… dry up?
The original Bill was the ‘pregnant man’ and the satirical intent was more pointed and obvious. Bill can’t be pregnant now; he’s too old. But he talks about how he got pregnant, still whingeing and incredulous, and how he had a daughter - they’re now estranged - and so on. Well, they would be. The female mind, it’s a mystery to Bill. It’s all an old bloke’s clichés about women – and a fine excuse for never understanding them. It’s Sandy Stone, more stream of consciousness but without a hint of pathos and a lot more genuine affection – and a lot more genuine laughter from the audience. Bill lives alone now and he’s lonely – and what he does about that shocks even him.
But we’re promised three characters and we wonder how Ms Ingleton will get her second creation, Edith, onto the stage. Well, she does it, and then we’re confronted with an eighty-eight-year old woman in a furry hat, a tightly buttoned overcoat and one of those walking frames with a seat. Like Bill, Edith is a bit overwhelmed by the modern world, but more of a realist and prepared to make the best of things. She’s the truth teller to her more naïve friends who have led more sheltered lives. But there’s no shelter from getting old.
Once again, as with ‘Bill’, Ms Ingleton completely becomes Edith. She removes the pencil moustache, but the face changes, the voice changes, the tone changes. Again, she is completely her character, stooped, lisping a little through false teeth as she comments on Life or what it has come down to – and the comments are more about that Life than a satire on Edith herself.
These characters are the fruit of years of sharp, insightful observation plus an axe to grind. It’s said that the best comedy springs from anger and with Ms Ingleton’s characters it’s anger at ‘masculine’ stereotypes, at inflexible attitudes and closed minds. But when the anger is just a little too obvious, it can overwhelm the humour. That happens to some extent – though without ruining the show – with her third creation, Gemma. Gemma’s getting on too, but she’s not yet decrepit. Oh, no. She’d modern, she’ll try things on, a bit New Age, but sceptical with it. With a cunning video diversion that amazingly puts Bill and Edith on screen together (!), Gemma erupts onto the stage in bright red lipstick, huge glasses, headband and a brilliantly manipulated shawl. And she may be drunk. Gemma’s a bit bitter, a bit jaded, a bit desperate. She’s still funny, she gets a lot of laughs, but the spiel is rather more polemical and less witty, the anger undisguised. It’s unfortunate because with Bill and Edith Ms Ingleton spellbinds us with laughter into hearing and chewing on many ‘incorrect’ thoughts. Gemma’s a bit, ‘Cop this, you lot!’
The magic of these impersonation remains. Ms Ingleton says this is the last appearance of Bill, Edith and Gemma – their last hurrah. Maybe she’s tired of them – or just tired. (They’ve been around, getting laughs, more than thirty-five years.) Her audience is not tired of them. We laughed, we winced, we were shocked by her accuracy and by her creations who are by now something of natural treasures.
“From Here to Infirmity is 75 minutes of Ingleton’s cutting edge writing which mirrors her intellect and is a performance that is all class”. http://www.stagenoise.com/