Jessica May, Elyse Batson and Hannah Holmes knew what they were doing when they wrote and performed La Vie En Rouge, a cabaret-like show about Parisian prostitution during La Belle Époque (The Beautiful Era), complete with French accents.
Their venue, The Speakeasy Theatre, was instantly immersive – dimly lit, and filled with velvet, golden tchotchkes and peacock feathers. We met the owner of this bordel, the sanguine and maternal Genevieve (May); her brazen affiliate, Seraphina (Batson); and young Yvette (Holmes), new to sex work and soon to fall in love with a client (Joe Kenny).
Regarding the bluntness and boisterousness associated with prostitution at the time, La Vie En Rouge was aptly funny, Seraphina’s engagement with the audience (‘Perverts!’) taking the cake. But the core of the show, convincing due to the chemistry between the performers, was the heart-tugging, sometimes reluctant loyalty that could arise from sharing a reductive and seclusive livelihood. Genevieve and Seraphina, with comically differing tacks, strove to warn Yvette against mistaking men’s fantasies for promises. In turn we learned, bit by bit, of their respective approaches to life in the bordel, and of how these approaches were inseparable from their dispositions and histories.
The show evinced interesting questions about autonomy, culpability and survival. One costume of Yvette’s smartly signified her romanticism, and then another, her acclimatisation to sex work. The decision to keep the critical client of hers silent, his face obscured, à la The Phantom of the Opera, was especially effective, ensuring that the focus was kept on the women.
The corseted trio jumped between sombreness and jollity with ease. Numbers by Edith Piaf, The Poxy Boggards, Ute Lemper and The Platters were fitting opportunities for each to showcase their superb vocals, while an audacious use of props rounded things out. Stacey-Louise Camilleri’s live, delicate piano suffused scenes with poignancy or suspense.
I only wish that the climax – Yvette’s shooting of the Faceless Man after he attempts to assault her – had been intensified with a sound effect, and that the resultant calamity had been tonally consistent, preserving an important point.
In such an intimate space, and with a run time of only an hour, La Vie en Rouge felt more comprehensive and epic than shows I have seen that are far grander in scale and indulgent about narrative. It was a testament to how a succinct and sensitive script, excellent acting and a well-strategised set can constitute exactly what a viewer may be hoping for, preventing unrelated concerns from encroaching on their focus.
That said, I would have stayed for double the time, rooting for Genevieve’s happiness, savouring Seraphina’s sudden provocations, and watching Yvette develop a broader perspective and tactics within the simple-yet-complex realm of sex work. Even with its musical interludes, La Vie En Rouge felt like a slice of life, rousing all the accordant curiosities and sympathies.
La Vie En Rouge, written and performed by Hannah Holmes, Jessica May and Elyse Batson
The Speakeasy Theatre, Melbourne
La Vie En Rouge was performed on 12-15 January 2023.