Taking place in the 1840’s London, Fallen is the story of six women who have been given a second chance. Set in a reformation house based on such establishments as Urania Cottage, which was founded by Charles Dickens, these women, who have fallen from grace, learn social etiquette as well as to cook, clean, sew and garden. When they are ready they will be sent on a ship to the colonies of Australia where they will become wives or serve as maids, leaving their past behind.
As the story progresses we see the women struggle with their traumatic pasts, which they must relay to the matron but are forbidden to tell the others and encouraged to forget; meanwhile they are faced with an uncertain future in a foreign country and constantly told that their second chance is a blessing. The pasts of the women, the reason they have fallen, while alluded to, are for the most part left to the imagination of the audience. While an interesting take on this choice may be that since their slates have been wiped clean, their past is irrelevant to the story. The result is instead that the audience is left waiting for this information only for it to never be revealed. There is an overall sense that something is missing and the lack of backstory makes it difficult, at times, to empathise with characters.
The characters are at once defined and easily distinguished, which is no small feat considering five of them wear very similar white dresses. Zoe Boesen as the matron gives a calculating, yet caring performance, rarely having to raise her voice and yet is still in control of every scene she is in. The role of the willful and bullying Isabella is played by Artemis Ioannides, who is formidable and sweet at the same time. Tahlee Fereday plays Martha, who is a naïve and afraid young woman; Gemma Bird Matheson as Julia, a quiet and agreeable resident; Jing-Xuan Chan plays Rosina, an educated newcomer to the group and Veronica Thomas as Georgie, who is an outsider in the house, unable to get along with her peers. Each performance is strong and well developed and together the cast creates a tight ensemble.
Produced by She Said Theatre, Fallen has been created by all female cast and creative team. While it must have been tempting to work Charles Dickens into the story, playwright Seanna van Helten (co-founder of She Said Productions) leaves his name out entirely, making it clear this is a story about our women’s history.
This is an intimate theatre experience. The venue, fortyfivedownstairs on Flinders Lane, is a small space where they have placed a small, raised stage in the centre of the room and seating on all four sides. The setting is minimal, mainly consisting of a desk and chairs, which is moved around by the actors to suit the scene and transforming the desk to a workbench, dining table and bed. The minimal set allows for props to be moved around so that the actors are constantly facing in different directions, mindful of audience members on all sides. They are even able to bring a sense of outside by pulling away floorboards to reveal dirt and vegetables planted beneath the stage, for scenes in the garden. The clever use of a small space gives the audience the feeling of claustrophobia that the characters feel, living in a small house, unable to leave.
The focus on keeping a woman’s ‘shameful’ past secret is an issue that we are still battling against today and this production illustrates the real damage that these institutionalised practice causes. Fallen shows us that second chances are rare but rarely uncomplicated. Beautifully acted and based on such an interesting facet of history, which informs the Australian narrative and the history of our women, Fallen is worth the time to see while it’s on in Melbourne.
Fallen is playing at fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, from August 15 — 26. The performance uses haze effects and contains course language. For more information and tickets visit fortyfivedownstairs.com.