In Magpie, Mordecai (Barb Lowing) is making a reluctant return to Brisbane, having left many decades earlier. Estranged from her recently-deceased Romani father, she is only returning to handle the sale of the family home to ensure she receives her much-needed inheritance (as his Will requires that she disposes suitably of his ashes and of his belongings). The action centres on the family home—where flashbacks to 1961 are interspersed with grumpy (and occasionally downright nasty) contemporary telephone conversations with her UK-based daughter, Fortuna (voiced by Luisa Prosser).

The discovery of her 1961 journal (and also a notebook of her late-Mother), inspires a sequence of revelatory flashbacks. She recalls her parents (Kathryn Marquet and Julian Curtis) as having a tempestuous and often violent relationship, where she felt excluded from their family history (and even from understanding what they said, when speaking in Romani). Through reading the journal, and recalling her attempts to investigate what really had happened, we see an unravelling of Mordecai’s misunderstanding of what led to their move to Australia—and an eventual realisation of quite how wrong she had been.

The naive, playful, flirtatious, and inquisitive Splinter (Michael Mandalios) was a standout character in the play, and his sad story was arguably more powerful than Mordecai’s family misunderstandings. Lowing and Mandalios’ interchanges were both poignant and funny; I really did feel the summer sun and enjoyed their child-like determination to discover the story behind her parents’ arguments. Lowing flicked with ease between the inquisitive Magpie and the grumpy older woman—although I didn’t always buy in to the oncoming thunderstorm, or feel that Mordecai deserved much sympathy.

It is always great to see ‘Brisbane stories’ on the local stage, and new writing (Elise Greig, Playwright) which explores outsider or marginalised communities is important. Romani are one of the smaller groups of people who have migrated to Australia, where Scottish Romani are an even smaller proportion. The Romani traditions were beautifully interwoven into the story—from the role of the shawl, and the ever-present security and warmth of the vardo, through to understandings of what is polluted, what can and cannot be spoken about, and what is a suitable way to deal with the belongings of the deceased. However, the ‘Scottish’ issue was a bit too much of a barrier for me—particularly distinguishing between when the parents were speaking privately, in Romani, and when they were arguing in often thick Scottish accents. This led to a period of initial confusion for some of audience members (including me), which distracted from early involvement in the story. And that was a pity.

Magpie references abound in the play. Magpie is Splinter’s nickname for Mordecai, and her mother feeds a magpie in their garden (until her father finds it, dead). Magpies are also an interesting choice when establishing a story about Australian outsiders, and the contrasts between Australia and Europe (Australian Magpies have beautiful song and are often hand-fed in domestic gardens, whereas European Magpies are regarded as inquisitive predator and are frequently associated with trickery, theft and bad news).  Perhaps there is more to be teased out of this script in a future production?

Magpie is an enjoyable 90-minute show, but I left wishing for more lightness and dark (and certainly less of Scotland). It’s an interesting idea, and an intriguing, well-written story. It was also great to see a different use of the Visy Theatre space (Josh McIntosh, Designer). I’d certainly look out for it again.

Verdict: Go for the ‘Splinter’ story, Romani references, and childhood memories.

Audience tip: Unallocated seating, so arrive a little early and aim to sit in the central seats you can. 90 minutes (lock out, and ‘lock in’, with no break). 15+ (two short complete blackouts, coarse language, adult themes, violence and suicide references). The Brisbane Powerhouse Visy Theatre Show runs until 9 June, 2019 (7:30pm—with a 2pm performance also on 8 June 2019 only). Tickets $45 (student, concession and group discounts) plus transaction fee. Presented by Metro Arts, Playlab and E.G., in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse.

Catherine Lawrence, perspectives

The reviewer attended the Thursday 30 May 2019 preview (7:30pm).

Production Image (supplied): Mordecai (Barb Lowing), with Mother and Father (Kathryn Marquet and Julian Curtis) in the background. Picture credit: Stephen Henry