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Published on Wednesday, 29 May 2013

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5 stars

Upstairs at Three and Ten (venue website)
27, 31 May, 5:00pm-5:45pm; 29-30 May, 8:30pm-9:15pm
Reviewed by Ben Aitken

 Warning: Contains strong language.
 World Premiere.
 Parental Guidance. Under-17's must be accompanied by an adult.

Puddles is an unusual romance which sees two quirky call-centre workers grow beautifully together, one afternoon when the phones go down. The script is a burst of brave poetry, the acting is deft and joyous – the production is a must-see.

With the phone lines dead, Thelma and Louise – who at the beginning of the play are little more than strangers – are given room and time in which to fidget and play, mimic and sing. They start out (slowly at first) on a surreal sequence of sketches, skits, songs and short stories, using imagined interlocutors as a framework to riff off.

The tableau of characters conjured by the pair gives Emma Jane Denly (as Thelma) and Kate Pearse (as Louise) an enviable chance to showcase their talents, cruising through various accents and tones, beautifully at play. Equally, by fitting a bundle of small performances within a larger one, Denly (who is the writer as well as an actor) has found the opportunity to flounce her narrative range: we get pretty satires, domestic tragedies, mini-farces. Puddles becomes a canvas for brilliant acting and writing, whilst also – and this is crucial – retaining an arterial through-story which gives it all direction and urgency. It’s quite a trick.

Both performances are exemplary, offering a lovely balance of vulnerability and verve, quiet and quirk, passion and passivity. Thelma and Louise are characters we can admire, laugh at, cringe at and worry about – they are deliciously human. There is skill in the actors’ delivery, of course, and in the more obvious gesticulation. But there is also skill in the smaller things: pursed lips, quick sniffs, dropped chins, furtive scratches, barely perceptible finger drumming. Jonathon Carr’s direction is attentive from the off, with the way Thelma extends her neck and widens her eyes catching perfectly the expectant boredom of someone cold-calling, or Louise fingering the dust on her keyboard to somehow give us a sense of her quiet melancholy.

As Thelma and Louise continue to muck around and ‘play pretend’, their antics become a window unto their personalities. By the play’s end, the two women come to see they’re on the cusp of love – be it platonic or romantic.  But we in the audience feel we already knew that; it seems inevitable, fitting and right, poetic. This sense of satisfaction with the end-game owes everything to Denly’s steady and careful characterization throughout, revealing fears, hang-ups and quirks through colourful vignettes, without it ever being blatant that she’s doing so. There is nothing accidental or random here, in spite of appearances.

One thing is for sure. Whatever these girls are supposed to be flogging, they aren’t hitting their targets. But their employer’s loss is our gain: their beautifully bizarre time-wasting is a terrific piece of drama. It makes you want to jump in a puddle.

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