Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney
April 26, 2018

The word ‘congruent’ recurs throughout Still Point Turning, a new play written and directed by Priscilla Jackman about the life of transwoman Catherine McGregor. McGregor’s feelings of incongruity are represented by a Greek chorus – sometimes whisper-soft but insidious, other times clamouring for attention, noxious and belligerent. It is unbearable, stinging and relentless.

The drawcard of this play is the strong central performance of Heather Mitchell, who keeps things chugging along for a mostly captivating hour and a half. Deeply compelling as McGregor, Mitchell is careful to always let us see the hurt behind the intelligence and wit, her whooping laugh Rabelaisian. You also behold the tenacity of someone who’s led a life in the public eye, McGregor having risen to the rank of group captain in the RAAF, worked extensively as a political advisor and speechwriter, and found a national readership as a cricket commentator. Delightful company, Mitchell captures McGregor’s matey and combative use of language, but also takes full advantage of quieter moments of reflection, entirely convincing as someone alienated from the self, the body and the world. Her admission, with its mixture of vulnerability and defensiveness, that passing is of significant personal importance registers as something very human and honest.

Catherine McGregor, Still Point Turning, Sydney Theatre CompanyHeather Mitchell plays Catherine McGregor in Sydney Theatre Company’s Still Point Turning: The Catherine McGregor Story. Photo © Philip Erbacher

With much of the dialogue taken verbatim from interviews Jackman conducted with McGregor – and with the latter’s story mostly told in chronological episodes – Still Point Turning can feel laboured at times, despite some of the production’s more abstract stage pictures. Some of the dialogue also runs the risk of being hampered by its own attempts at edification, as when McGregor the character explains why she chooses to specifically call herself a transwoman. But despite some of these missteps, it’s clear this production is crafted with sincerity and attention, with every element of the creative team doing their best.

One of the play’s most effective episodes comes when McGregor tells of how she revisited the church where she was married to her now ex-wife. A finely judged, nuanced performance from Mitchell, she asks God to let her die, her despair leading her to lie crumpled up on the altar, utterly spent.

Heather Mitchell and the cast of Sydney Theatre Company’s Still Point Turning: The Catherine McGregor Story. Photo © Philip Erbacher

Another vignette sees McGregor lie, foetus-like, across from her adolescent self. Although separated by a cricket bat bought by McGregor’s father, the pair shield it like a most precious thing. McGregor’s love of the game is a constant throughout the play – a sustaining force, it is where she finds joy and encouragement, particularly in the form of Indian cricketer Rahul Dravid. Played by Nicholas Brown, his inclusion is an effective one, Jackman’s script making clear to the audience why McGregor would be drawn to someone so at home with themselves. However, there are some unfortunate decisions regarding the presentation of his character, with much of what Brown’s called on to do – bowing, hands folded in prayer – on the edge of caricature. This should be rethought.

Catherine McGregorAshley Lyons in Still Point Turning: The Catherine McGregor Story. Photo © Philip Erbacher

Elsewhere, Ashley Lyons gives a deeply committed performance as McGregor’s younger, pre-transition self. Always dancing on the edge of rage, he captures the desperation of this version of McGregor, still entrenched in the profoundly masculine sphere of the army and seeking obliteration at the bottom of a bottle. One of the play’s most arresting images sees Lyons look on at a collection of their idols – drag queens and club kids – unsure of whether to ally themselves to this group of outsiders or run far away.

Another image that sticks in the mind. Mitchell, a pillar of strength in white, hugging the real Catherine McGregor at curtain.

Still Point Turning: The Catherine McGregor Story is on at Wharf 1 Theatre until May 26