Doin' time behind bars
Written by Katherine Thompson
Directed by Angela Chaplin
Performed by Valerie Bader and Angela Punch McGregor
Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney
Reviewed by Margaret Allan
Anyone who has ever "done time" behind a bar will enjoy, and strongly identify with, Barmaids, a play about a week in the life of two women, Nancy and Val, who work in your average Australian pub. Both are approaching middle age, and the play pivots on the possibility of one being retrenched to make way for younger staff, although neither Val nor Nancy know which of them will enter the ranks of the unemployed.
The play, although slow to start, gradually reveals the nature of the relationships these women have: with the manager of the hotel, the customers, their former lovers, and with each other. The barmaids see the bar as their "home", and enjoy the feeling of being in control of the predominantly male clientele, some portrayed as heroes, most as simply pathetic.
There are some wonderful one-liners. When a customer whistles for service, Nancy responds, "Would you prefer me to bark, lick your face or just piss on your leg?"
These two women see themselves as having carved their niche in life and earned the respect of the customers, something not freely given. The arrival of a 'skimpy' barmaid is greeted by Val and Nancy with indignation, then horror, as they see customers' loyalties fade in the face of cheap titillation.
The power that the two women felt within their role behind the bar is gradually revealed as an illusion. The real power, they discover, is held by the man with the power of dismissal: Marcus, the manager of the hotel. However, his attempt to pit one worker against the other is thwarted by the solidarity of the women and their pact, "if one goes, we both go".
From my own experience in the industry, this is a very accurate portrayal of pub life in Australia, depicted with a mixture of humour and pathos.
On the whole, Barmaids is very entertaining, well acted by Angela Punch McGregor and Valerie Bader. A fair amount of audience participation ensured a lively atmosphere, balancing well with the more serious moments. Some of the musical aspects wore a little thin, although the audience karaoke was entertaining. Definitely recommended, especially for those in the hotel industry.