Theatre review: Tiddas

The page-to-stage adaptation of Tiddas by Anita Heiss is given a heart-warming production by La Boite Theatre. 

Anita Heiss’s best-selling novel about the loves and lives of five long-term friends has been adapted for the stage by the author through the determination of Director, Nadine McDonald-Dowd, and with dramaturgical support from Jane Harrison and Sanja Simić. 

Collectively, they have managed to turn the 350-page novel into a 90-minute play without losing any essential messages of the story, while recreating characters that are both authentic and believable. 

Throughout the telling of their individual and strongly linked stories, we come to know, understand and appreciate these women in all their foibles and strengths, and in both happy and sad times.     

We discover that Izzy, Xanthe, Ellen, Nadine and Veronica were all at high school together in Mudgee, and are now living in Brisbane. Approaching 40, they are still best friends and meet monthly to talk about books, life and love while candidly dissecting their lives in a way that only old friends can do. 

Tiddas means ‘sisterhood’ in Aboriginal parlance and three of the friends are Indigenous. These include sisters Izzy and Xanthe, and their brother Richard, who is married to Nadine, so family connections are interwoven.  

Izzy, touchingly played by Phoebe Grainer, has aspirations to be Oprah Winfrey and host a mainstream talk show on television. She has just landed the perfect job when she discovers that she is pregnant. Unsure of what to do next, and seemingly reluctant to tell her chef partner Asher about the baby, she discusses options with her friends.

The arc of discovery she goes on is probably an all-too familiar one for many women. Grainer discovers much about the character of Izzy as she agonises over choices. Finally, she tells her mother and then Asher, and things become clearer. She gives a sterling performance. 

Her sister Xanthe, has an entirely different story arc. Married to Spencer for many years, they are trying desperately to have a baby without success. Finally through IVF, she gets pregnant but the baby is not to be.

It is a well-known but sad story that almost wrecks her marriage. Shakira Clanton plays her with warmth and sensitivity, finally coming to terms with her loss. 

Ellen’s story is one of being an abuse survivor, who early on made the decision not to have children. Living alone she has a constant stream of sexual partners up until now, enjoying a single life.  As Ellen, Chenoa Deemal had the wittiest and most brittle lines in the play; at times embarrassing others with her candid sexual references. She gave a strong and tough performance delivering much of her role with a fast-paced acerbic humour that was sometimes hard to decipher.  

Nadine was a complex character that started the play as a strong and dominating force but later disintegrated into a sad and bitter person. In a mixed racial marriage to Richard, with three children, she is the most successful of the group, being a well-known author but is also an alcoholic.

Some of the toughest stuff in the play is how Nadine’s bitterness stems from her books never being discussed because she is white. This causes some ferocious arguments in which racial issues unfortunately are centre stage.  Louise Brehmer played her with passion and a deep understanding of her flaws. She made her drunk scenes realistic, while her touching speech where she apologises to her sisters was moving. 

Recently divorced, Veronica, is the prime motivator for the book club and keeping the women together, showed us a woman reeling from a 20-year broken marriage with her two sons having recently left home. Anna McMahon gave a beautifully nuanced performance as a bewildered and betrayed woman, needing to find a new life for herself with the help of her friends.   

Playing a range of male characters – Richard, Asher and Spencer, alongside two of Ellen’s partners, Craig and Rory – Sean Dow did a really splendid job. He brought to life the different personalities of his characters, assisted by walks and mannerisms, vocal changes, costume changes and props.

As Izzy, Xanthe and Richard’s mum, Roxanne McDonald was an impressive force; a wise, Indigenous woman who cherished and supported her children at all times.         

Nadine McDonald-Dowd directed the play with great empathy and strong attention to detail in her range of characters that brought them vividly to life. She paced the separate scenes well, using the staging areas to full advantage to recreate different spaces and houses. Nigel Poulton also managed some realistic fight and movement scenes well.  

Shakira Clanton. Photo by Farley Ward, Shutterstorm Photography.

As Set and Costume Designer, Zoë Rouse created a marvellous stage setting with a small revolve that was used to full advantage. The backdrop was a bookcase lined wall with stairs leading to a balcony, used for scenes overlooking Maiwar, the Brisbane River, a pub and a restaurant.

In front were some separate areas delineating the various houses where they lived and met, plus a front garden space on a revolve. It was cleverly used and well presented. Her costumes defined her various characters beautifully with some minimal but appropriate changes.

Jason Glenwright’s lighting was excellent, with a range of table lamps and some on the back wall shelves that added greatly to evening scenes.  Atmospheric music was used for scene and time changes by Wil Hughes to great effect. 

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The individual stories of all these characters were very familiar, while their paths have been well tried and tested many times.

However, the combination of three Indigenous and two white women as the Tiddas added another layer to these stories, with the occasional rawness of cultural (mis)understanding. Overall, the play worked well to bring awareness of current problems, as well as highlighting deep bonds between women in our society.

Comprehending more about the multi-racial society in which we live and the background of our First Nations people can only assist with a deeper understanding of the issues.     

Tiddas by Anita Heiss
Presented by La Boite Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre and Brisbane Festival
La Boite Roundhouse Theatre, Kelvin Grove, Brisbane 
Director:  Nadine McDonald-Dowd
Set and Costume Designer: Zoë Rouse
Lighting Designer: Jason Glenwright
Sound Designer: Wil Hughes

Movement/Intimacy/Fight Director: Nigel Poulton
Dramaturg: Jane Harrison

Dramaturgical Consultant: Sanja Simić  
Cultural Consultant: Aunty Colleen Wall
Vocal Coach: Melissa Agnew
Cast: Phoebe Grainer, Shakira Clanton, Chenoa Deemal, Louise Brehmer, Anna McMahon, Roxanne McDonald, Sean Dow

Tiddas will be performed until 24 September 2022. 

Suzannah Conway is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She is a freelance arts writer and has been writing reviews and articles for over 20 years, regularly reviewing classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals Most recently she was Arts Hub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer.