Down and out in the dumps of womanhood

Mariam Tell reviews the DU Players production It’s Time to Get off the Train

She’s living life on the edge. A woman named Elizabeth (Jess Watson) is sitting on a white plastic chair, hands on knees, face scrunched in concentration. What is she thinking? We shift in our seats, uncertain as to what to make of what is in front of us. Suddenly, the actress’s face floods with relief, and she gets up, pushing an imaginary lever as the sound of a flushing toilet floods the overhead speakers. Now it is laughter that erupts in the theatre. Finally, we seem to be thinking: a piece of theatre that isn’t afraid to show a woman poop.

It’s Time to Get off the Train depicts the highs and toilet bowl lows of a young woman’s emergence into adulthood. Written by Jess Watson and co-directed with Raina Weinberg, Train is a poignantly real and relatable dramatic comedy that successfully captures the youthful flaws of a woman determined to escape the pitfalls of growing up.

The play centres on her life at two different ages: Lizzy (Uma Bakaya) is seventeen at the start. Watson plays Elizabeth, her older self: a spiralling thirty-year-old trying desperately to resurface from her crumbling marriage. As Lizzy learns what it is to fall in love, to fail as a friend, and to struggle to see “love” and “happiness” as attainable in her lifetime, we see Elizabeth coming to terms with her inner loneliness and deep-rooted desire to be able to love herself.

While most women would relate to this play, that doesn’t only make it appropriate for select audiences. From awkward, self-deprecating Luke (Killian Sedano) to Elizabeth’s hilariously loud and proud mother Imelda (Louis Toole) to her wacky and carefree therapist (Emma-Jane Nannetti), comedic antics provide relief from all the seriousness, a cunning metaphor for life’s own often cruelly-timed comedic interludes.

“The transportable setting and flexible blocking create the feel of a play that transcends time and space”

Production elements are thoughtful and utilise the malleable space of the Players’ workshop theatre. Scenically painted wooden flats on wheels transform the space from a bedroom to a restaurant to a club bathroom to a therapist’s cushy office (Catherine Campbell, Sets). While some of the set movements detract from the inner monologues of characters, the transportable setting and flexible blocking create the feel of a play that transcends time and space, like anachronistic memories in a movie’s montage sequence. 

Although sound effects (Virginia Ferri) fade in and out at occasionally faulty moments, overall the music and lighting (Laragh Phillips) help build a scene out of minimal set pieces, such as by using red and light LED lights around Christmas time, and playing Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You for Lizzy’s melodramatic dormroom breakdown. Costume (Maryna Sydorova), however, wins the game for its subtle additions to characters’ wardrobes that clearly delineate age, mood and setting: from a purple sweater for Lizzy’s outdoor fight with Amy to a light-beige patterned sweater for Luke’s older self, the character’s dress ensures we are never left muddled with the “when” and “where” of each scene.

As the play progresses, we watch as Lizzy grows up and grows away from the friends she kept after secondary school, such as boisterous Amy (Eabha Brereton Hurley) and anxious Luke (Killian Sedano), learning more about herself as the people who once knew her slowly etch themselves out of her everyday. Further down the line, Elizabeth meets strangers who help her realise her own flaws, such as during a catastrophic first date with geeky Michael (Jack Spillane), her darkly humorous therapy sessions, or chance encounters with a sobbing and hysterical fellow open mic performer Eabha (Martina Perone): “I hate you Dan… I lied when I said your willy wasn’t small, it is!” Not to mention the mortifyingly hilarious interventions of Elizabeth’s eccentric mother Imelda, who insists that Elizabeth’s problems would be solved if she heeds her mother’s advice: “I said you should SPREAD YOUR LEGS!”

With easy-to-watch dynamics that are set firmly in place by juxtaposing character traits, this is a cast that clearly knows how to work off each other’s energy. Brereton Hurley’s dazzling portrayal of a young woman determined to maintain hope plays a perfect contrast to Sedano’s Eeyore-like demeanour and Bakaya’s cynical sarcasm, making it easy for the audience to fall in love with characters who, to our own dismay, fall out of love with each other.

“Lizzy and Elizabeth’s monologues, alternatively humorous and heart-shattering, break the fourth wall to resonate with the play’s young audiences”

Despite the well-delivered comedic interjections, it is Lizzy and Elizabeth’s monologues, alternatively humorous and heart-shattering, that break the fourth wall to resonate with the play’s young audiences. Bakaya perfectly evokes Lizzy’s vulnerability and fear at maturing through beautifully eloquent lines with the wistfulness and confusion we so often associate with our own youth: “I look at my parents, and I know I don’t look like them. I don’t know if I’m built to have what they have.”

“I made a main character who people sympathise with, but who ultimately unravels on stage,” says Watson, who found that depicting “selfish, or perhaps it’s better to call it ‘convenient’ love” helped her better understand where, and with whom that kind of love originates. “In a way I kind of forgave her [Lizzy/Elizabeth], but at the same time [I] became increasingly more frustrated the more characters I added into her life, because they have to suffer.”

It is true that Lizzy remains trapped in patterns of loving (or failing to love) for selfish reasons. Perhaps that is where the refreshing female relatability comes in: she’s a character that none of us want to be, and yet all of us understand and know through various apparitions in our own lives. But that’s not to say that the bar is set high for Watson’s female characters, as she herself is well aware of what might be “expected” from a woman protagonist in a love story, adding that “the parents of Lizzy are caricatures and are designed to be unachievable versions of love and loyalty.”

“I think being young means you’re afraid a lot of the time, because the unknown is so massive and endless,” says Watson. For capturing that, her play definitely hits the mark. So much so that audience members could be seen visibly nodding and moaning their sympathy at lines like Lizzy’s: “I think that’s what scares me: when time starts to become this thing to fill up.”

“It was important to showcase all parts of the female experience, pissing, shitting, fucking up friendships”

It’s not often we’re lucky to see women being themselves on stage, but with a play that centres the highs and lows of emerging into and coping with womanhood, Watson and Wainer have successfully crafted a relatable female coming-of-age story. “It was important to showcase all parts of the female experience, pissing, shitting, fucking up friendships,” says Weinberg. “I think it was especially important to have a very flawed woman main character … by the end, her shortcomings weren’t ‘cute’ or ‘quirky’ but seriously hurtful and directly addressed by people in her life.”