Adelaide Festival Review: The Photo Box
“You might wonder why I’m telling you this story,” Emma Beech says halfway through. The Photo Box. I say Emma, but it’s actually her dad, Jim, speaking as she re-enacts the speech he gave at his court wedding a few years ago. She’s traveled through characters and time periods so much that you could be forgiven for wondering what story she’s talking about.
Beech herself is a storyteller, and an accomplished storyteller. Tonight, she’s dressed in an impeccably cool orange costume — that’s what you get when you do a festival show, she explains — and is completely at ease on stage. Again, this is a scene made to look like home; Designer Meg Wilson’s slightly retro set features a rounded platform that alternately replaces the lake in Beech’s Riverland hometown of Barmera or a living room rug. Behind her, rounded squares and ovals clutter the backstage like picture frames on a cluttered fireplace.
Beech is the youngest of a large Catholic family of eight children, she tells us, and it was definitely an accident.
She shows a photo of her mother, aged 41, holding her baby in her arms. This is the first of many; a few years ago, his parents decided to divide the family photos into eight boxes, and The Photo Box is a dreamlike approximation of Beech leafing through his part. As she leads us on a journey through her family’s past, these faded photos are thrown behind her with all their mules, homemade bridesmaid dresses and first communions.
The initial disarming informality of Beech’s stage manner belies the precision of his artistry; the show sits somewhere between a seemingly improvised dump of memory and stream of consciousness, and the kind of real-life anecdotes and character studies that have been honed through years of storytelling and family mythos creation. It seems, at first glance, that Beech knows these people like the back of his hand.
She reviews decades, marriages and divorces, man caves and health issues, in loving but unvarnished terms. It conjures up vivid vignettes and invites us inside; there’s the Beech family’s manic, sweaty Christmas in a 41-degree summer in Barmera, and the mystified Danish boyfriend she dragged into this whirlwind of burnt meat and daily binge drinking. Or the surreal, heightened emotions of the weeks she spent in the neonatology ward after giving birth to her own children – triplets, no less.
Beech’s warmth and humor make us putty in his hands, but it also means that when the moments of heartache and unexpected pain arrive, the impact can be surprisingly devastating.
Throughout the piece, fake fish fall from the rafters in a reminder of a mysterious fish kill that once plagued Barmera’s Lake Bonney. As the fish beat and die onstage, they hint at an intangible sense of unease that still lurks outside the postcard-ready image of Barmera, a rot just out of the frame of all those memories of ‘childhood. Like all vacation towns, the experience is a little different when you’re not packing your bags and leaving at the end of the season.
The Photo Box grew out of a work of “performance art,” Beech says self-deprecatingly, where a few years ago she first opened the box in front of an art gallery audience. It was, she admits, pretty average, but there was a show there.
This fully realized Adelaide Festival production, directed by Mish Grigor and co-produced by Vitalstatistix and Brink Productions, always feels intimate and personal. But there’s also a note of universality – throughout the performance, a woman in the row behind me emits a growled “Oh gawd” of recognition too often to count.
“That’s so true,” Beech laughs casually at one point after making an amusing, if unflattering, impression of one of his older brothers. We have to take her word for it, of course, and when she invites her older sister onto the stage halfway through, it becomes clear that no sibling has access to the full family history. Like their photo boxes, they each contain different pieces, many of which overlap, some of which do not.
Towards the end of the play, we are shown almost silent filmed portraits of his brother, mother and father quietly going about their passions. We have heard so much about them that we feel like we already know them. But as the camera lingers and Beech watches with us, it looks like even she will only know part of the picture herself.
The Photo Box runs at the Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, until March 7.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.