The Joan, January 15


Stories, we are often told, must have a beginning, a middle and an end. The hard part is often knowing where and how to end, especially when the raw material is biographical or, worse, autobiographical. Deborah Pollard’s self-devised, one-woman show was shaping up as the pick of this year’s Sydney Festival, before she let it run beyond its natural stopping point, and so rather than leaving the theatre shell-shocked and in tears, we left remembering how devastated we’d been 20 minutes earlier.

Deborah Pollard. Photos: Heidrun Lohr.

The piece begins with a young Pollard learning to sing Mozart, while her proud father waits in his ute. These childhood years are related with a charm and performative ease that draws us into her family as it migrates all the way from Yass to… Canberra!

Until now her father has been the tale’s protagonist, changing careers from menswear to fine timber. But after hitting the big smoke, the real protagonist is Canberra, itself, with Pollard presenting a witty slideshow and mock travelogue of the nation’s capital as it was in the 1970s, when Woden Plaza hosted such wonders as palm trees, live wrestling and even a ski slope.

The family, meanwhile, moves from Curtin to the outer suburb of Chapman, replete with mountain vistas and horses grazing just across the road. The house, with its pseudo-Spanish arches and red-cedar feature wall, was her father’s pride and joy, and for Pollard the lifestyle was idyllic.

The devastation came long after she’d left home, on January 18, 2003, when a tornado-generating firestorm obliterated 488 Canberra homes, including her family’s, her parents barely escaping with their lives. With an economy of words and slides, and in a voice that never overdramatises the horror (as if that were possible), Pollard draws us into the scale of the calamity. She plays interviews she conducted with family members, and recounts visiting the ruins of the house the next day, the horses in the paddock opposite now so many burnt carcasses.

She ends this section by singing Purcell’s Dido’s Lament, and there she could have left us. The ensuing narrative of rebuilding and her father’s slow decline into wordless dementia (possibly triggered by the 2003 trauma) is obviously massive in her own life, but undermines an important and intensely moving piece of theatre.