The Strong Charmion

Kate Young
23rd Jan 2024

"Strength should be an attribute of all humanity. It's not a gift that belongs solely to the male of the species." - Jan Todd: First Woman to Deadlift 400 Pounds

Life under the big top isn't easy, the tent goes up and the tent comes down and all the audience ever witnesses is what's performed under the shiny lights. For spectators it’s a way to escape their everyday life but for the performers its where life begins. The big top becomes a home, offers a sense of family and community to those shunned by the outside world for not conforming to societal and biological norms.

Chloe Lethlean Higson's The Strong Charmion tells the story of Rosalie Whitewood (Gabrielle Bowen), a woman determined to write her own herstory, by reinvented herself as the Charmion - the star attraction of the Frieze Family circus. It is here that she has made a name and career for herself, captivating audiences with feats of extraordinary strength and skill. However, when her real identity is revealed to the world, her past threatens to catch up with her - a past lover re-emerges, reminding her of a life she's run from, just as a new love makes her question her destiny and desires all while fighting (in more ways than one) to not let her onstage persona disappear. 

It seems very fitting that Higson's debut work be propelled into existence after becoming the 2023 recipient of the Katie Lee's Fellowship Award, a foundation set up in honour of Katie Lee a fellow actor, writer and producer who sadly passed away in 2021. Katies legacy was to provide a platform that supports emerging woman in theatre, amplifying their voices on stage and behind the curtain. Chloe Lethlean Higson's innovative new play is filled with courage, humour, empathy, and is a reflection on humanity but it also stands as a testament to female strength - mind, body and soul.

The cast of four female identifying and non- binary actors were superb, and all seemed quite committed to their roles, to the point where they were throwing themselves across the stage. Gabrielle Bowen was statuesque as the Charmion, embodying strength, and demanding attention when ever on stage. Nicky Markovic portrayed three different male identifying characters in the show. Ross Livingstone the scorned ex-lover/ Frank D'Orazio the circus cook whose big heart gets overshadowed by an even bigger burden and Leopold Freize the jaded money hungry circus owner. Unfortunately, I felt the undertaking of three roles to be a little ambitious (for any actor). For me there just wasn’t enough diversity/time given between characters, leaving me confused with plot and timeline. One thing I will commend both lead actors on is the wonderful chemistry between them, the intimate scenes were endearing and tender (receiving coos from the audience) and the physical fight scenes could easily give any WWE match a run for its money (a woman behind me gasped in terror during the pinnacle scene between Rosalie and Ross).

The standouts for me were the supporting cast members, Alyssa Peters as Juniper Treewick the "hysteric" ticket seller brought many of the laughs, but also shocked us into submission at the characters revelations of what it was like to live in a time where men could determine anything they deemed to be unmanageable in woman, a sickness. Despite suffering at the hands of the one's that are supposed to protect her (her mother forces shock treatment upon her and towards the end an ever graver solution) still remains upbeat and hopeful. Like a real life Jiminy cricket complete with top hat, Juniper serves as a conscience for both Rosalie and Frank, you can almost hear her whispering in their ear "When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires will come to you." Finally, is Emily Crow playing Rosalie's childhood best friend Kitty Livingstone. Every word uttered by the actor flowed naturally and you believed the lived experiences of her character. Emily was able to give us a character of nuance. We watched as this charming young lady with infinite dreams slowly withers into a ghostly version of herself. Emily's marriage has sucked the life out her to the extent that she resorts to faking both pregnancy and abortion to capture the attention of her misogynist husband. The character was a great juxtaposition to that of adult Rosalie a symbolism of freedom vs domesticity.

Set and costume designer, Bella Saltearn please take a bow - both aspects of your work created a feast for the senses - The stage set was other worldly, transporting the audience back in time. For anyone who has ever been to footpath theatre, you know how small and quint the space can be, Bella was able to utilise the space to its fullest potential creating pockets for scenes to take life, it’s a tremendous skill to pack a stage with so much detail and not have any components invade spaces but still harmonise as a complete picture. Not only did it feel historically accurate, but it allowed us to live life beyond the curtains. The smell of hay bales consumed the air as soon as you entered the space, the costumes made up of corsets, suits, top hats, and dresses reflected the era. Pair this with the amazing audio work from Andy Freeborn, who I'm assuming created all original pieces, created a soundscape that embodied big top energy as carnival/gypsy music intertwined with mumbling of crowds overlayed with the booming voice of the ringmaster, hyping the crowd over a crackling gramophone, all you had to do was close your eyes and you were there.

Overall, the performance was an enjoyable experience and with a little tweaking, this play could be a real contender. The Strong Charmion is a story fuelled on female rebellion, it's about reclaiming your space, owning the rights to your own body, and choosing how wish to live in it and when push comes to shove, well I guess you just got to shove right back.