Theatre review: One Woman Show, Sydney Opera House

A parodic exploration of well-worn tropes of female-led storytelling.

One Woman Show is a show with pedigree. Not only was it nominated for the Best Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Festival, it also made the laudable progression to London’s West End for an acclaimed run before arriving in Sydney this week. 

The accolades are well deserved – the show is original, sharply observed and deeply, darkly funny. 

A notice as you enter the theatre informs you that the performance of Wildfowl will be filmed, and for a moment you think you are in the wrong theatre. The actress who appears on stage also tells you the show will be filmed as part of a ‘See it, Say it, Commission it’ pitch to an agent and you quickly realise that this is part of the performance. 

The show has been compared to the play and television series Fleabag, and the most notable similarity is that the name of the main character is never revealed. The role, played by Liz Kingsman who also wrote the show, is a conflation of the female lead in every one-woman play, film or TV show you will ever have seen. She’s a 20-something, ‘stumbling through life in a darkly comic way’. She commutes on the Tube to her job in marketing for a London bird charity (‘mainly posting pictures of ducks on Instagram’). She lives with her daggy best friend, a Liverpudlian who rolls joints all day. She’s ‘sexy in a non-threatening way’ and likes to put her hands inside the office coffee machine and toaster. 

The hapless adventures of the protagonist are narrated by Kingsman in a series of vignettes. A bird expert tells her that, like the godwit, they will be destined to only meet once a year to mate, but will be soulmates for life. There’s also the tall, exotic Phil from Panama, who turns out to be not all he seems. She tucks up in bed and on the sofa with her bestie flatmate who allows her to put her ‘lap on her head’ and has ‘are-you-all-right?’ conversations with her Aussie boss. The scenarios are interspersed with Kingsman’s conversations with the faceless camera crew who are keen to record the show without going into overtime despite numerous technical issues.  

What results is part homage to the one-woman show genre, part farce, part tragedy and part satire. Yes, it’s Fleabag, but it’s also Bridget Jones, with some Sex and the City and a dash of Virginia Woolf to boot. It’s also far cleverer than any of these labels and clichés suggest.

The script is acutely observed and devastatingly funny, blending earnest confessional, and farcical memoir with feminist rant and even a bit of performance poetry. Throughout, the razor-sharp one-liners and wordplays come at you like machine gun fire. So much so, you’d probably need to see the show twice to get half of them.

Adam Brace’s direction is admirably restrained, subtle and perfectly clichéd. Coloured spotlights highlight a single swivel chair with grass inexplicably growing under it. A creaking camera on a gimbal peeks out from the wings. The stage floor lights up with swirling disco lights. The occasional spotlight hovers over the stage. And that’s it. The begrudging camera crew are only heard from the wings or from behind a distant lighting rig.  

Read: Performance review: House of the Heart, Melbourne Chinese Museum

Kingsman originally hails from Sydney, and has been living in London for several years. She’s returned to her home turf with One Woman Show for a lamentably brief season. I’m sure many will be hoping she stays for a bit longer.    

One Woman Show
Written and performed by Liz Kingsman
Directed by Adam Brace
Performance Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Tickets: from $70

One Woman Show will be performed until 19 February 2023.

Virginia Balfour is a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She has extensive experience working in the UK film and television industry as a producer and director, as well as an NGO film-maker in the USA. She is a published author and journalist and lives with her family in Sydney.