“TAN BOOTS: To the girl in tan boots who always gets on at St Leonards, you are my angel of the morning. My daily fix of heaven. – Man in Grey Suit.”
How can someone disappear from full view, from one of the busiest train stations in the country? How do you stay visible in a big, busy city? They’re the questions that lie at the heart of Tahli Corin’s Girl in Tan Boots currently playing at Griffin Theatre as part of their Griffin Independent season. To quote the season book, “Hannah is 32, single and slightly overweight. Hannah has eczema and lives alone with a cat named Cupid. Hannah reads the love messages in the commuter magazine religiously, hoping one day, one day, there will be one just for her. But when Hannah goes missing while waiting for a mystery man at a
train station, her friends and family are left to question whether their
actions played a part.” Sydney
It’s a dark play, certainly, there’s no denying it. But it’s also quite delicate and touching, quite beautiful and funny at the same time. There’s a loneliness that sits at its heart that seems to bleed through, into the characters’ lives, into the staging, into the set, even the performances at times, and it’s quite powerful and affecting stuff.
One of the central motifs in the play is the idea of the magician who makes people disappear with his magic box. Introduced relatively late in the play, it suddenly focuses everything that’s come before it in a new light, in a startlingly fresh and clever way, a way that cleverly solves the necessity for needing a clear-cut resolution. The play’s end is by no means obfuscatory; it is quite definite, albeit rather ambiguously proposed. And therein lies the play’s spell, it’s magic if you will pardon the indulgence.
If you think of the central speech around which Christopher Nolan’s film of The Prestige is built – “Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts,” it begins. “The first part is called ‘The Pledge’: the magician shows you something ordinary… The second act is called ‘The Turn’: the magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled... That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige’.” It’s a hypnotically simple device around which to build the film (and book), but the same speech can, I think, be applied to Girl in Tan Boots. At first, we are told that a girl is missing, having replied to one of the ‘LocoEmotion’ notices in the daily commuter newspaper (just as in mx’s ‘Here’s Looking At You’ column; you’ve probably seen them before but haven’t paid them much attention). Then, bit by bit, we are told the full story, the way her colleagues tried to make her happy, the way the whole thing was actually not quite what it seemed at all. But that’s not enough, not really, because you want to know what happened to Hannah in the end, whether she lived or didn’t quite make it. And that’s when playwright Tahli Corin plays her best card, the one she’d been saving for last.
The investigating detective (played by Linden Wilkinson) says it herself, when she realizes part of the way it happened: you’re always watching the assistant, with her hands and her eyes, her body in its flattering sparkling costume, but what you don’t see is what she’s actually doing. The magician’s actually not doing any of the work; it’s the assistant who’s working the real magic. The magic of misdirection and hiding in plain sight.
And the set itself, ingeniously designed by debut designer Katren Wood, is essentially a room-sized magician’s cabinet, with two doors that are constantly changing their function, their contents, and are a source of the production’s fluidity and malleability. Events collide with the present – are they happening now, or in the past? Are they events that will happen? We’re never quite sure exactly – and as they do, the entrances and movement of the actors playing her co-workers (Madeleine Jones, Zindzi Okenyo, Francesca Savige) are also quite deliberately distracting and misdirecting in a highly choreographed magician’s-assistant kind of way, so we're never quite sure of who's telling the truth, or indeed what the truth might even be.
By the play’s end, you might be frustrated, you might be quite deeply affected by it all, you might even be smiling in a way, but deep down, I reckon it’d be hard not to feel warmed by it. Not because of the way the ending is delivered, but because of what its implications are: to quote The Prestige again, “the secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.” If you’re looking for Hannah, we might say in this case, you won’t find her, because you can’t quite bring yourself to look. You don’t really want to know for sure if she’s alive or not, because you want to believe she’s out there still. Hiding in plain sight…
Theatre playlist: 9. These Boots Were Made for Walking, Little Birdy