Theatre review: Recollection, fortyfivedownstairs

How do you capture and preserve the smell of someone once they are gone?
Two young women are seated and looking at each other, hand in hand. The one on the left is fair, the one of the right is brunette. Behind them is shelving with a collection of glass containers.

Our sense of smell is, of the five, the one that gets the least love – particularly in the arts. We can’t sniff our televisions or send scent cues through cinema. In the theatre, we may smell the dusty drapes, or the strong perfume of our neighbour, but scent is rarely used as a device to complement a theatrical experience itself. A recent exception was Travis Alabanza’s BURGERZ, where the actor recounted an experience of trans violence while cooking a burger in front of the audience.

While it’s a powerful tool, the underutilisation of the sense of smell in theatre may have something to do with the fact that smell is acutely personal. The connection between smell, memory and emotion is well-documented and researched. But while it has the ability to circumvent our cognitive functions – and drop us back to a time and place where we can taste and feel and see all that we experienced when we first linked that smell to that memory – what scents I link to memories will always be different to yours.

Recollection, written by Georgia Ketels, directed by Cathy Hunt and now on at Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs, is about a mother’s drive to preserve her dead teenage daughter’s smell in a perfume. It’s about grief, about mother-daughter relationships, the intoxication of first love, queer love and scent. It’s about the individual components that make up a human life and create the complexity of who they are. 

The set, designed by Eloise Kent, picks up on this theme of compartmentalisation of a life, and presents a wall of boxes, drawers, windows and cupboards, neatly stacked to create one large wall. Chairs, a bed, a table, the perfumer’s trolley, drawers and cupboards all unfold from this structure, like a complex dollhouse. The set is a wonder of design and dramaturgy, although it offers a whole host of logistical issues for the actors to navigate. It may have paid to have given some extra thought to the connection between scenes to keep things flowing – particularly when tables, chairs and table settings have to be set up before action can commence. 

Throughout the play, the timeline shifts, juxtaposing scenes of Molly’s mother, Olivia – after the unexpected death of her daughter – with scenes from the past, where we see the young love blooming in the relationship between Molly and her new friend-from-the-other-side-of-the-tracks, Jenna.

We witness Olivia attempting to collect samples of Molly’s life that hold a key to part of her scent – her chewed strawberry chewing gum, her old clothing – and bring these items to a perfumer chemist, who specialises in creating perfumes based on the chemical analysis of the scent of someone who has died, and the scent memory of those who remember them. 

As each of Molly’s belongings is brought to the perfumer (Ravenna Bouckaert), they are reverently placed within the boxes and cupboards of the set wall. These then briefly light up – a snatch of the essence of a life caught, preserved.

While it would be easy for a play dealing with these pretty heavy themes to feel overwrought, the writing is deft – cleverly interspersing the scenes of a mother deep in the experience of grief with those vibrant scenes of young love at its freshest. Plus, each of the fine actors brings a nuanced lightness to their role, so that the overall experience is at once tragic, funny and wistful, a complex tapestry of the highest highs and lowest lows of human experience. 

Eve Morey as Olivia embodies a protective, loving and harried single mother. As a parent experiencing grief, she is strung out, stretched to breaking point. Bouckaert as the perfumer has the steadfastly resolute composition of a scientist motivated by something deeply personal, and the character serves as Olivia’s sage and unexpected grief counsellor throughout their scenes.

Molly Holohan as Molly is a charismatic delight: she’s funny, fun, easy to love. She’s smart, dorky and caring. Mish Keating as Jenna wears the hardened carapace of someone who has had to grow up too young, with her just-under-the-surface vulnerability keeping the character from feeling cold or inaccessible. We see what Molly sees in her, just as we see what Jenna sees in Molly – this is some truly excellent casting. 

Throughout the play, the exploration of Molly’s scent becomes visceral, as she sneakily hides a smoke with Jenna in her room. As she sprays bug spray all over the house to kill a mozzie. As we see the perfumer and Olivia share the experience of chewing Molly’s favourite, strawberry Extra. The smell of Molly wafts over the audience.

When someone who is close to us dies, the experience of wanting to preserve that person’s smell is real. It disappears, as clothes are given away, washed, worn. The fear, explored by Olivia in the play, of that smell going away, being forgotten, is akin to experiencing another loss. Another death. The transportive power of scent acts like a time machine, allowing us to powerfully remember once more, who that person was and how they lived, breathed and moved.

Recollection offers a wondrous wealth of well-directed, tightly written scenes, featuring first-rate performances, and a thoughtfully complex exploration of grief, queer love and parenthood.

Read: Musical review: Beauty and the Beast the Musical, Her Majesty’s Theatre

While Molly’s scent, due to its deeply personal nature, didn’t evoke a scent memory for me in the show, I do wonder whether, if I smell that scent again in future, it’ll take me back to the experience of deep nostalgia I experienced while watching Recollections. Because, for me, it really hit the experience of grief on the head.  

Recollection by Georgia Ketels and potkettleblack productions
Writer: Georgia Ketels
Director: Cathy Hunt
Producer: Georgia Ketels and Ravenna Bouckaert
Set/Costume Designer: Eloise Kent
Lighting Designer: Emma Lockhart-Wilson
Sound Designer: Jess Keeffe
Scent Artist: Erin Adams
Assistant Director: Chelsea Jones
Stage Manager: Sophie Walter
Sound and Lighting Technician: Lara Gabor
Intimacy Consultant: Isabella Vadiveloo
Cast: Mish Keating, Molly Holohan, Ravenna Bouckaert, Eve Morey

Recollection will be performed until 7 July 2024.

Kate Mulqueen is an actor, writer, musician and theatre-maker based in Naarm (Melbourne). Instagram: @picklingspirits Facebook: @katemulq Twitter: @katemulqueen