Theatre Review: Dirty Birds, Heath Ledger Theatre, WA

'Dirty Birds' explores the off-centre symmetry of sisterhood in a context of anxious absurdity.
Dirty Birds. Image a large ink set of a bedroom, with two women looking out a window with their backs to us.

Written by real life sisters Hayley McElhinney (Mystery Road: Origin, Oil) and Mandy McElhinney (Wakefield, The Glass Menagerie), Dirty Birds centres on Mary and Martha: a pair of adult sisters who live together in relative isolation, where they drink tea and cosplay as functional human beings. Although the play isn’t autobiographical, it is influenced by the sisters’ childhood, and reflects the dual isolation/joy of a life lived mainly within the walls of a remote family home. 

Mary and Martha are out of step with the world around them, grappling with the ways in which their imposed identities restrict their growth. Their idiosyncratic relationship highlights the ability of both actors. As real-life siblings they embody the “same but different energy” specific to sisterhood, which occasionally borders on gothic doubling in all the funniest ways. 

The play opens to a claustrophobic yet expansive creased-cardboard backdrop, with a door and window cut into one face. A bench, a box and a small table lamp adorn the stage, which, in hindsight, are thematically appropriate for a play about staying put, enclosing oneself and hiding in the darkness.

The artistic design reflects the playfulness that exists between the sisters, subtly drawing attention to the myriad ways in which humans hide their fragility behind costumes and masks, both figuratively and literally. The intensity of closeness between two sisters is entangled within their complementary but contrasting personalities. The costume design requires a gradual undressing throughout the show, as if revealing more about themselves and each other by layers.

Changes of light denote the passing of time, thanks to the remarkable artistry of Paul Jackson’s lighting interacting with Bruce McKinven’s brilliant set and costumes. Rachael Dease’s sound design encapsulates every atmosphere perfectly, from the raging of wind to childhood soundscapes. 

Initially disorienting, Dirty Birds takes a moment to find its narrative feet, but as the absurdity increases, so too does the overall strength of this production. Hinting at (but never confirming) an apocalyptic outer world, it subtextually leans into despair, anxiety and powerlessness, neatly wrapped in a protective box of unexpected hilarity.

Anyone who grew up making bizarre improvised plays with their siblings (complete with soundtracks, air guitar and melodramatic dance moves) will relate to the unconventional structure and seemingly random content. From knocking on a dead crow, to performing last rights with a can of WD40, certain scenes have a bizarre quality, similar to that of a terrifying nightmare becoming hilarious once described. The irreverent delivery enables heavy emotions to seep onto the stage, without unduly weighing down the overall narrative.

There are many great one-liners in this play, which has the peculiar energy of two children hiding in a cubby house during an apocalypse. The lines between reality and imaginative play are intentionally blurred, both in terms of the story, and its artistic execution. The adult dialogue vibrates with childish poignancy, acknowledging challenging depths without overtly succumbing to them. Underlying currents of optimism frame tomorrow as a hopeful point on some imagined future horizon. 

Read: Theatre review: A Very Jewish Christmas Carol, Southbank Theatre

Self-isolation and the fear of rejection dissipate under the strength of togetherness in this hilarious play about breaking down walls to become more expansive. It will resonate with sisters, ghosts of Christmases long-since passed, and anyone who refuses to play by the rules of a terrifying outside world. 

Dirty Birds, Heath Ledger Theatre, WA
Writers: Hayley McElhinney and Mandy McElhinney
Director: Kate Champion
Set and Costume Designer: Bruce McKinven
Lighting Designer: Paul Jackson

Assisting Lighting Designer: Matthew Erren
Composer and Sound Designer: Rachael Dease
Voice and Dialect Coach: Jean Goodwin
Stage Manager: Liam Murray
Assistant Stage Manager: Sophia Morgan
Cast: Hayley McElhinney and Mandy McElhinney

Tickets: $30 – $110 

Dirty Birds will be performed until 10 December 2023.

Nanci Nott is a nerdy creative with particular passions for philosophy and the arts. She has completed a BA in Philosophy, and postgraduate studies in digital and social media. Nanci is currently undertaking an MA in Creative Writing, and is working on a variety of projects ranging from novels to video games. Nanci loves reviewing books, exhibitions, and performances for ArtsHub, and is creative director at Defy Reality Entertainment.