Candlelight flickers across the face of a beautifully painted castle façade, crowned by a glowing Tudor rose emblem. Blue-lit fog and sombre chanting conjures impressions of 16th century Britain, as Anne Boleyn (Emily Howe) appears with her servants, Alice and Agnes (Colleen Bradford and Fiona Forster).
Alice and Agnes are convicted papists, who, at the petty whim of a tyrant king, have been promoted to one of the highest positions a mediaeval woman could hope for. As ladies-in-waiting, they bear witness to pivotal moments in several queens’ lives, with minimum reverence and a maximum impact. Their cheerful lowbrow humour, anachronistic language and effective use of irony immediately engage the audience.
Bradford and Forster are endlessly entertaining as these uproariously upwardly-mobile imposters. They bounce off one another’s facetious energy, delivering lines with impeccable timing and faultless emphasis. Agnes and Alice are the perfect foils to Anne Boleyn’s grace and poise, even under the looming shadow of the new queen’s nascent demise. Howe personifies a regally sympathetic figure in her portrayal of the latter, subverting the clichéd presentation of Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife as a manipulative seductress.
Catherine of Aragon’s ghost soon appears (hilariously embodied by Jennifer McGrath), to the unimpressed bemusement of Agnes, who really just wants a nap. Clicking castanets for comical emphasis, Henry VIII’s first queen is easily identified by her gable hood, heavy accent and understandable hostility towards the woman who displaced her. McGrath’s imperious attitude and dual-language swearing has the audience in stitches, utterly owning the challenging role.
For inexplicable reasons, Henry VIII’s latest paramour, Jane Seymour (Maree Cole) arrives to visit her recently betrayed counterpart – sickly sweet and gushing stupidly. Jane’s enthusiasm and lack of self awareness are even funnier than the tapestry gag (no spoilers) thanks as much to the comic genius of Cole as to the merits of the script itself.
After the intermission, portraits of Henry Tudor and Catherine of Aragon appear on the palace wall, and Alice and Agnes have aged 20 years. The papist daughter of Henry and Catherine is England’s new reigning monarch. McGrath is back and appropriately creepy as Bloody Mary, burner of Protestants. Cole returns as Anne Boleyn’s daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I, showing the absolute dynamism of her acting prowess through the starkly opposite personalities of her two roles. Mary’s phantom pregnancies and devout religious conviction contrast harshly with Elizabeth’s cavalier Protestantism, setting the tone for the darker second act.
The impressive set – comprising the aforementioned façade, a selection of chairs and a royal throne – includes a working door, through which cast members enter and exit. Sparse but effective props include (but are not limited to) pewter goblets, a chamber pot and an authentic-looking crown, made by Living Horus Designs.
Virginia Moore Price’s lighting design is unobtrusive but effective, employing early morning yellow light (and flashes of red in bloodier moments) to atmospheric effect, in addition to the charming flicker of well-placed battery-operated candles.
Cartoonish versions of mediaeval garb make stage-worthy costumes, bringing colour and personality to these larger-than-life pseudo-historical characters. Suitably ornate without taking themselves too seriously, these costumes perfectly match the overall tone of the playful production.
Written by Yvette Wall, this two-act play grew from a personal fascination with the Tudor period. Portraying the injustices faced by a handful of historical women, Ladies Who Wait uses humour and irony to expose power imbalances, leaning into stereotypes to underline thematically relevant points. In the style of British sketch/satire reminiscent of Monty Python, this play takes liberties with history, and leans into historical subject matter without presupposing too much pre-existing knowledge.
Wall’s witty dialogue combines literal gallows humour with both situational and observational comedy. The slighty-slapstick style is replete with morbid asides delivered with self-aware irreverence. Plenty of historical Easter eggs (like Anne celebrating her predecessor’s death by wearing a yellow dress – ever the fashion icon) strengthen the framework of this delightful black comedy. Although some of the jokes will be best understood by those with some knowledge of the period, the play is entirely accessible to a generalist audience.
Under the capable direction of Gino Cataldo, an undeniably talented cast of five carries the weight of the narrative commendably, consistently refusing to let historical accuracy interfere with comedic aplomb.
Ladies Who Wait is a fun historical romp, not to be taken seriously, but to be seriously enjoyed.
Ladies Who Wait by Yvette Wall, Off the Wall Productions
Subiaco Arts Centre, WA
Director: Gino Cataldo
Stage Manager: Aleesha Wall
Producers: Yvette Wall, David Wall
Lighting Design: Virginia Moore Price
Tech Operator: Simeon Brundell
Set Design: Virginia Moore Price, David Wall
Set Construction: David Wall, Jon Skipworth
Set Artwork: Ursula Kotara
Costumes: Hustle and Bustle Costumes
Costumes for Alice and Agnes: Colleen Bradford
Crown: Living Horus Designs
Cast: Emily Howe, Colleen Bradford, Fiona Forster, Jennifer McGrath, Maree Cole
Ladies Who Wait will be performed until 26 August 2023. It is currently sold out but check with the company if there is a waitlist.