107 Redfern, December 11


Fame has become as debased a currency as the Venezuelan bolivar. Those seeking celebrity can belch inanities on social media and achieve it with zero accomplishments. Whereas Dorothy Levitt, a British pioneer in the earliest (1903-1909) days of motor racing, power-boat racing and flying (routinely outclassing men in what was very much a male domain), can wallow in relative obscurity, until being rescued by Mark Langham’s new play.

Lib Campbell and Alexander Spinks. Photos: Clare Hawley.

The title comes from Levitt’s 1909 book, subtitled A Chatty Little Handbook for All Women Who Motor or Want to Motor. Langham has penned a crisp 80-minute comedy that gradually hardens, as Levitt (Lib Campbell) becomes more embittered by her inability to inhabit a man’s world on equal terms. Suffering from this and from constant sporting-injury pain, she’s depicted as an alcoholic and morphine addict. (After where the story leaves her, Levitt became a complete recluse, and was dead at 40.)

The play is lively and witty, while landing solid punches in the points it makes. But this Ship’s Cat Theatre Company production, directed my Cam Turnbull, misplaces much of the humour amid constant bustle. In a common mistake, over-acting substitutes for faith in the text’s inherent funniness, particularly from Alexander Spinks as Levitt’s sanctimonious patron and lover, Selwyn, and Zoe Crawford as her friend (and romantic admirer) Bella.

Zoe Crawford and Lib Campbell. Photos: Clare Hawley.

Campbell largely evades this sin. Her Dottie is convincing as a daredevil, a drunk and breaker of the prevailing marriage/child-rearing code. She lets fewer laughs slip past, and is genuinely moving when she breaks like vase at the end. She also has some great lines. When Dottie rebuffs Bella’s advances, and the latter muses on a bleak future in which a canine companion might be best, Dottie says, “Don’t get a dog. Wait for a lesbian.” Later she tells us that she slept with the Frenchman who introduced her to morphine because hotel rooms were scarce and she had nothing to read. Her relationship with Selwyn (Winnie) materialised because “lots of people died in the races, and Winnie never did. I liked that about him.”

Were the production less busy, and Spinks and Crawford prepared to let the lines do the work, many more laughs would be forthcoming. Hannah Tayler’s set, meanwhile, is a succinct gem: as snug as a chocolate in a box.