Ladies High School nostalgia bites in MTC’s Alice Pung adaptation ‘Laurinda’

This is such a great play. It’s a celebration of growing up ‘different’ in Melbourne and inquiry into how we define being ‘Australian’.   Well acted, punchy, funny and, at times, painful, it’s an easy view for anyone’s who’s attended high school…as well as being a funny F*You to the ghosts of our past and the values which still, sadly, prevail from that era. This story is not an easy watch for the elite who sponsor disadvantaged students into a world apart from their origins. It’s a riposte to criteria and eligibilities, to entitlement and who defines one’s worth.

Celebrated Melbourne author, Alice Pung of Unpolished Gem fame, has had her 2016 novel about a Vietnamese student on an academic scholarship at an all girls school adapted by local comedian Diana Nguyen and MTC Associate Director Petra Kalive, who really amp up the dangerous drama only high school frenemies can provoke in their excellent script and energetic staging.

The girls of The Cabinet.

Pung, first generation child of Chinese Cambodian immigrants, was raised in inner western Melbourne and went on to study at the University of Melbourne. She’s now an award-winning author and cultural favourite, and, as with all her stories, she doesn’t shy away from the darkness of the past. Just as her parents had past trauma which marked their lives even when they came to the magic land of freedom in Australia, so to does Pung evoke the Chinese tradition of ‘ghost’ spirits haunting our present – requiring exorcism for catharsis.

There are moments you can feel the visceral anguish of possibly her own story in this homage to our past educational experience and the covert values inherent in the so-called ‘multi-cultural’ modern Australia. The stigma of being non-Anglo, non-WASP, of coming from migrant heritage, and the nastiness of teen women in groups are all brought into bright light via a flashback formula which takes the lead 38 year old character from a reunion award night as teacher, to revisiting her childhood via a bathroom portal. Under pressure from both directions, this first generation Australian does not want to be a doctor and also wont conform to her new country’s expectations of grateful show pony.

Ngoc Phan as Lucy, with Fiona Choi

There are aspects of this painful trip-down-memory-lane tale which any school student can relate to – as graduates of an all girls college, my +1 and I joked it should come with a trigger warning such were the shivers we had viewing the toilet pranks, lies and rumours, and teacher-baiting laid bare. Status and class envy were experienced by everyone in this supposedly classless new nation and it’s such fun that Pung and this adaptation can flagrantly out this irony and double standard. It’s done in a quirky, irreverent and fun way. The pace is quick, the timing is tight and the actors jump, pop and puzzle animatedly through the script.

Acting from lead character Ngoc Phan and her inner voice/ghost self – Gemma Chua-Tan, is top notch. Although appearing as everyday Aussie women you might walk past at Melbourne Central or Chadstone, their lustrous and attenuated acting skill allows us into the mind of their characters through all the plot trials and tribulations, as comical as they are. Pung spares nobody- not the ESL remedial English teacher, not the Principal, not the parents and not the in-club coterie, The Cabinet, who ambush her and co-opt her into membership.

Ngoc Phan(Lucy) and (Mother) Chi Nguyen.

Digital projections, 1990s pop music, dancing and mock dinners with an ‘Asian flavour’ add dynamism to the journey combined with heartfelt cut-aways to the female leads’ home life- caring for her younger brother, tutoring past girlfriends, her mother performing piece work at home on a sewing machine, speaking in local dialect, and her Dad thinking McDonalds is a treat night the private school friends might enjoy! Culture clash and feeling like an outsider between two cultures are standard fare for our lead.

Wait for the highlight moment where lead Lucy Lam’s realisation comes to a head and she unleashes on all the cast from her past. It’s a moment our audience gave rapturous applause for.

It’s so great to see real Australian stories on Australian stages and MTC’s NEXT STAGE commission has enabled this witty and empowering reply to Culture to flit before our eyes – go see a fictional representation of the very real experience of growing up in contemporary Oz.

– Sarah Wallace
is the Theatre Specialist for The Plus Ones, Melbourne.  A dance and English literature graduate of VCA, UOM and Deakin, she has a flair for bold, non-traditional performance platforms. An active contributor to The Melbourne Shakespeare Society, on the street, or in the box seat, she is always looking for quality works that push the envelope.

Laurinda shows 6 August – 10 September at Southbank Theatre (no interval), 7.30pm Wednesday- Saturday, 1pm Wednesday, 2pm Saturday

Purchase tickets here Accessible tickets available.

Images: Courtesy of Jeff Busby. 

Disclaimer: The Plus Ones were the guests of Melbourne Theatre Company.