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A Night at the Theatre

Here’s a not very well-kept secret: film and theatre make me cry.

I can’t go to a Disney movie without a pack of tissues in my handbag. TV shows, even cartoon ones, often have me sniffling. When we were in high school, my friend Ashlee used to call emotionally fraught movies “Sarah movies” because that’s just how I roll, and live theatre with any kind of emotional aspect is a dead cert for switching on the waterworks, especially if there’s music involved. There’s something about the combination of music and emotions that makes it impossible for me to keep it together; by the interval of Wicked, Clare and I were clutching each other sobbing inconsolably, and by ten minutes into Les Miserables I was a mess.

But until yesterday I’d never been to a show where the performer held my hand when I cried.

The show I saw yesterday was The Belle Curve, an intimate acoustic jukebox cabaret made up of tender and emotionally charged covers and intimate self-reflection from the engaging and charming Ella Jean. I saw an earlier incarnation of this show at the Monash University Student Theatre Container Festival last year, and it was beautiful and inspiring then, but the cabaret you’ll see at Melbourne Fringe is longer, deeper and more developed than the original. The show tells the story of “a fat girl finding peace and strength in the face of crushing body politics” and to me it demonstrates how powerful autobiography can be, because while the experiences Ella talks about are personal, they’re achingly familiar as well. The steps on The Belle Curve’s journey and my own weren’t identical, but the story felt so much like mine that it brought me to tears more than once, both for the girl in the story and for the girl in my own story. Luckily I chose the seat next to the complimentary tissues!

The performance space is a cosy little lounge room hung with twinkle lights and scattered with adorable body positive cushions, and it’s a bit like being invited into a friend’s home, with the audience all cosied up on couches or cross-legged on the floor. When Ella speaks her voice is soft and conversational as if she’s just chatting to you about her life. When she sings with acoustic accompaniment from instrumentalist Oliver Stuart – and she has a beautiful, powerful voice – you can feel all the emotion poured out into those carefully chosen songs because she’s right there next to you. The combination of all these things makes for a performance that is sensitive and intimate and deeply caring. There is a lot of love in this show.

It’s not all calm and gentle though; there are some gut-wrenching, agonising moments and some dreadfully sad ones, as one might expect from a story about the very painful experience of growing up fat in a fat hating environment. The feelings are raw and Ella is open and honest about the ups and downs of coming to be okay with yourself, that even when there are victories there can be setbacks too. But there is a tenderness throughout the show that reminded me that she knows these moments are painful for us in the audience too. When she sings KT Tunstall’s “Heal Over” towards the end of the show, the words are a promise to herself and to us as well: “Everybody sails alone, but we can travel side by side.”

I’ve got to confess a certain amount of bias here, although I am confident the show speaks for itself even without my emotional entanglement: Ella is a dear friend of mine and I am the Sarah you’ll see honoured in the program notes. But the story there is the most important part of all this, in a way. The honour is not for being actively involved in the show, but for doing the kind of activism I am most proud of doing, helping another fat person come to realise that who she is is and the body she has are completely okay. It will never ever stop filling me with joy when people tell me I’ve been able to give them that gift, because it was desperately important when it was given to me and it’s a message I want to keep sharing and to see others share. And that’s what The Belle Curve is, a revelation and a reminder to anyone who hates their body that they’re not alone, and that there is another way to live. This is such a vitally important message, and its importance is why so many people contributed to the Pozible campaign that funded the show. We all knew how much this story needed to be told, and I am very grateful to Ella for telling it.

Melbourne is becoming a pretty wonderful place to be fat, with the likes of The Belle Curve and Va Va Boombah, a blossoming indie plus size fashion community and a whole lot of fantastic fat babes networking and creating and being completely brilliant. It’s a constant delight to see the kind of fat positive art and community being created here, and The Belle Curve is a wonderful contribution to that.

The Belle Curve is still showing at the Melbourne Fringe Festival until October 4, and I encourage you to go see it if you can. Not just because Ella Jean is my friend, but because the world needs more stories like this.

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