Before a word is spoken, the laughs begin. A few cast members appear on a set that nails retirement village decor, with its peachy tones and nice but decidedly utilitarian fixtures and furniture. Playing doddering residents, they milk their characters’ quirks and slow pace through physical humour and timing that immediately gets the audience giggling. The laughs hardly let up for the next two hours, thanks to Lally Katz’s wisecracking script and a cast that’s uniformly hilarious.
Minnie and Liraz is set in a retirement village overseen by caregiver, Norma, and the play opens at a resident’s memorial. The deceased was the longtime bridge partner of Minnie, a brilliant player who lives at the facility with her husband, Morris. Fellow resident Liraz coaxes Minnie into being her new bridge partner, by agreeing to a pact that will bring their 30-something socially awkward grandchildren, Rachel and Ichabod, together. Minnie is obsessed with having a great-grandchild and Liraz is desperate to win the national bridge tournament so – despite their very different personalities – they form a bond and the games begin.
Nancye Hayes and Sue Jones in Melbourne Theatre Company’s Minnie & Liraz. Photos © Jeff Busby
Except for a slightly false note toward the end, when a complication is wedged into the relationship between Rachel and Ichabod, Minnie and Liraz doesn’t miss a beat. The jokes flow freely, with a variety of tone, from sardonic to innocent, made possible by six diverse characters.
Making the most of this rare and welcome spotlight on veteran acting talent, Nancye Hayes and Sue Jones are successors to The Golden Girls in the title roles. Jones, who occasionally steals the show as the loud, scheming Liraz zipping around on a motorscooter, and Hayes, who plays Minnie, a genteel woman seeking true contentment at last, play off each other beautifully. Hayes’ scenes with Rhys McConnochie – as grumpy but devoted Morris – offer a more subtle kind of humour, shot through with the tenderness of a 70-year marriage. McConnochie, who delights with Churchillian scowls and outbursts of annoyance, also delivers a poignant little monologue that’s one of the play’s few moments of overt sincerity. Without being mawkish or over-reaching into profundity, such moments give Minnie and Liraz soul.
Georgina Naidu brilliantly reveals the nuances of sweet but determined Norma, a character who could easily be ridiculous in lesser hands. Virginia Gay reveals both the anxious oddball and inner strength of Rachel, while Peter Paltos does a nice turn as geeky Ichabod. These two also play the opening scene’s unnamed residents, who return for more funny, wordless vignettes here and there.
Georgina Naidu, Virginia Gay and Peter Paltos in Melbourne Theatre Company’s Minnie & Liraz
Mel Page’s simple, versatile set facilitates rapid scene changes and physical humour, and puts the characters front and centre. The rotating stage switches between either side of a circle, intersected by a corridor that allows the cast to easily move between these two spaces, subtly dressed for different rooms within the retirement village. Clear glass on one side of the corridor makes this third, transitionary space the locale for many of the the play’s sight gags. Page’s costumes are also functional and effective, in service to story and character rather than distracting.
Under the direction of Anne-Louise Sarks, this fast-paced comedy never flags, the cast are pitch perfect, and those dashes of sincerity are served with a sure hand. Minnie and Liraz is laugh-out-loud comedy that leaves you grinning, and slightly amazed it’s part of a Melbourne Theatre Company season rather than the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
Minnie and Liraz plays at Arts Centre Melbourne until June 24.