Gemma Dart

Two friends meet up in a pub and have a good long chat. BACK TO BIRDY is a lot more complicated than that but essentially that is the backbone of this play that delves into some chasms and contradictions within the queer community. Playwright Z Bui uses pathos and humour to explore the aftermath of a falling out between the main characters, Warren and Emily. Warren’s transitioning and Emily’s dealing with that news contributed to their lives drifting apart.

Gemma Dart’s powerful and intimate performance as Emily is extraordinary. Hayden Moon, as Warren, makes a great foil and their exchanges reminded me of the conversations in Richard Linklater’s film Before Sunrise. Z Bui’s script and Sean Landis’ direction are to be commended.

The clever use of flashbacks helps Warren and Emily look back at their younger selves and examine how they dealt with events and issues. They have differing recollections and emphases on these events which adds to the richness of the stories. They even engage in some very funny and profound editing and altering of events to achieve better outcomes. If only we were able to do this in real life. Their younger selves are played by Angelica Lockyer and Chloe Jayne, who also play Warren and Emily’s arch nemeses, Prue and Candace. The evil vaudevillian characters Prue and Candace provide great entertainment and perfectly capture those horrible individuals that encroach into one’s social circle.
This play was developed by Fruit Box Theatre and is reflective of Fruit Box Theatre’s commitment to telling inclusive stories that reflect the lived experience of queer people in Australia. It explores how members of society think of trans people and compares this with how they want to be considered. The dilemma and confusion of changing from someone who identifies as lesbian, with a strong dislike of men, to identifying as a man is thoughtfully investigated and examined. Back to Birdy is a call for empathy and understanding.

BACK TO BIRDY  is presented in association with Sydney Mardi Gras and The Imperial Erskineville. This iconic pub is the perfect venue for this thoughtful and entertaining play.

The creative team includes Assistant Director Lu Bradshaw, Stage Manager Jess Henley-Sadgrove, Sound Designer Aisling Bermingham, Set/Costume Designer Soham Apte and Lighting Designer Aron Murray.

BACK TO BIRDY  opened at The Imperial Erskineville on Friday 23rd February and runs until 1st March. It is strongly recommended.

Review by Mark Pigott


Hayden Moon, Gemma Dart

It’s Friday night at the Imperial. It’s the eve of Mardi Gras week. Queens with big hair and fierce eyes command the hallways, in preparation to take the stage. The post work crowd smear glitter on their faces to forget about being square. We descend into the basement – not to greet 200 sweaty bodies grinding to a George Micheal Remix – but to find forty people eating pizza and drinking wine. They are expectantly watching the empty table in the centre of the room. For our posterity, two young actors are about to re-hash the conversations unfolding on the floors above us; and in the nightclubs and bedrooms of young queer people everywhere. 

The latest offering from Fruit Box Theatre is effectively this: 80 minutes of discourse between two talking heads. One is a newly transitioned man, the other a ride or die lesbian woman. They are having a drink in a bar, along with the rest of us. They were childhood best friends, but time, and one too many mis-spoken truths, has left a yawning chasm between their past and present selves. It’s awkward to traverse and we feel it – perhaps because the situation demands it, perhaps because the actors are still finding their feet. 

Luckily, the disconnect doesn’t last long, and the two friends find an intimacy borne of shared memories: of high school dramas, past relationships, and secrets. They are brought to life by two shadow actors who perform vignettes of their younger selves. Sometimes, the re-enactments are accepted for what they are, but just as often they reveal one party’s revisionist history; the ways we rewrite the past to help us sleep at night. 

It’s no wonder their memories are murky. The conversation reveals the worst of being a teenager; the self-harm, sexual assault, body dysmorphia, gender confusion, rejection, and loneliness which so many of us experience.  We go to war and back in those years when we are, to quote Back to Birdy, ‘just a mess of oppression and hormones.’  In lieu of the coping mechanisms we later learn, the only armour we have are the friends we take with us. 

Yet so often those friendships don’t last. Inevitably someone fails to show up when it really matters and someone else cant forgive them. In the writers note, creator Z. Bui says that no one tells you how to have those conversations – how to nurture a friendship in the way we are taught to nurture our romances. The play is an offering to platonic love, and while its agenda couldn’t have been nobler, aspects of its delivery could have been stronger. 

The dialogue was mostly an excuse to download pre-conceived diatribes, rather than explore the inner workings of the characters. Bar one or two moments, every question asked had an answer already conceived. The result of this, is that we lose the space of contemplation which silence, metaphor and action so diligently create. I didn’t walk away feeling I understood the experience of Transitioning anymore more intimately than if I had read an article. 

Having said that, if Back to Birdy had been an article, it would have been a good one. The discourse oscillates between woke pop culture references, sub cultural commentary about the Sydney gay scene, and poignant insights into the trans man experience – like the need for male approval as an equal, when you have spent your whole life as a woman hating them. 

But the attempts at truth telling remain confessional – never reaching the heights of a good relationship drama, borne of vulnerability and conflict. While the reenactments added a level of dynamism which the play couldn’t have achieved as a two hander, the conversation – the real meat of the play – didn’t generate enough of its own tension to justify spending an hour and a half inside someone else’s friendship. 

It wasn’t an easy thing the creator set out to do; nor was it an easy task they gave the actors – all of whom had moments of authenticity, within otherwise one-dimensional performances. It is often said that the art of conversation is dead. Yet artists the world over ask us to meditate on the seemingly banal act of talking to one another. Plays, movies, and books abound, that take joy in dissecting the minutia of two voices in concert. The moral of most of these meanderings is that we have forgotten how to listen, so consumed are we by our own world. Back to Birdy has something to say about this, as two friends try desperately to hear each other. Whether they succeed is an ongoing question, one you will have to go see the play to find your own answer to. 

Fruit Box Theatre’s production of Z Bui’s BACK TO BIRDY directed by Sean Landis is playing the Imperial Hotel Erskineville until 1 March 2024.

Review by Amy Fairall








Featured image : Chloe Jayne, Angelica Lockyer in BACK TO BORDY