Review: Let Kate guide you on a fun ride through democracy, change and people power

Kate Sheppard (Jane Leonard) and her gang in a scene from That Bloody Woman. Photo/Mark Hamilton

This bloody woman, written by Luke Di Somma and Gregory Cooper. Presented by Bold Theatre, directed by Courteney Mayall and Kyle Chuen. At the Meteor Theatre, Hamilton, until September 3. Reviewed by Cate Prestidge

There’s a little jostling on opening night as eager audiences charge through the doors and I see the middle row of seats filling up fast, but never fear there are good sight lines from the three sections of seats surrounding the stage.

Directors Courteney Mayall and Kyle Chuen, along with choreographer Lauren Mann, utilized the full expanse of space and directed the action of That Bloody Woman very effectively to the audience.

So let’s move on to the story of Kate Sheppard, a woman inspired to improve society, an advocate for political change and a story maker. It’s told as a series of snapshots along a historical timeline with dollops of romance, conflict, good guys, bad guys, ups and downs, packaged like a punk rock musical.

The opening song That Bloody Woman is a belt. Performed by the “Gang”, a group of 16 energetic performers who threaten the stage in all their “punk-rock”, it builds upon the arrival of our heroine, Kate (Jane Leonard). When she glides, elevated and shimmering white, soaring above her band of champions, it’s classic rock star staging. Jane Leonard is as assured, confident, humorous and faithful as Kate and we get the first glimpse of her wonderful big voice.

Leonard’s role is huge, driving much of the action, but she’s well in control of switching between MC, dialogue, and cajoling her crowd. The story relies on Kate as the narrator and although I like more “show not tell”, the construction purposely drives the action.

Leonard plays big numbers with power and control, while shining in the painful ballad Tempest in your Longing Soul.

Kate is supported by her best friend Jennie Lovell-Smith (Jessica Ruck Nu’u) and fellow suffragist, Ada Wells (Helen Drysdale-Dunn). Ruck-Nu’u is a delight in poignant and intimate solo The Man With Two Wives while Drysdale-Dunn’s vocal clarity and expression in Quarter Acre Dream are truly moving. These two quieter moments were an important contrast, emotionally charged, and a highlight for me.

Aana Watts stepped into her understudy role as temperance activist Mary Leavitt with confidence. The staging of his song Change Doesn’t Come for Free showed Leavitt’s charisma and influence through a wonderful ecclesiastical backlight.

Nick Wilkinson made a glam-rock entrance as Prime Minister Richard “King Dick” Seddon – flag the puns. While Wilkinson brings a bit more mobility and sinewy energy to the gallant statesman of 1893, his King Dick, backed by his band of men, thunders with compelling misogyny and aggression.

Kate’s girl gang are both her modern-day champions and team of fans. They are fierce and a bit scary, and fabulous, as young women are when they know their own minds so well. The way they commanded the stage was exhausting and inspiring. I liked them all.

The direction is complete, with every performer of the moment, professional and fully engaged. Mayall and Chuen, along with choreographer Mann, brought an array of creative skills, strong directing, and most importantly, cohesion to this cast. They all looked like they were having fun and their energy was huge.

I loved the classic costume and punk signifiers of tartan, rips and layers as well as the rock star eyeliners and hair. It was individualistic, but thematic and with small symbols to show character.

Musical director Nick Braae (keyboards) and his band Joseph Brady (bass), Casey Messent (guitar), Kaleesha Messent (drums) and Ruby Messent (guitar) are spread out at the back of the stage in a rock concert formation. They sound big and musically tight, and I liked how they took center stage in the action.

There were some volume and audibility issues on opening night, the occasional crackle of the mic, and the feeling that the band was a bit loud, so the lyrics needed to drive the story were sometimes lost. Sometimes the punk aggressiveness directed at the audience was almost too much, but in general I liked how they invited participation, especially in songs like Ah Men led by KM Adams as Vicar.

The team worked hard with the stage, set, costumes, make-up and lighting, all effective and they deserve more praise than a line in a review, but rest assured the team behind the scenes is seen.

If you can’t tolerate a swear word or two, or even a whole stream of them set to music, then this might not be the show for you. Context is key and you are warned from the start that this is a punk rock story, so a stream of swear words here and there is part of the genre.

The writers say that when they wrote the show more than 10 years ago, they wanted people to think about democracy, change and people power, ideals that are even more present today.

The show has 21 musical numbers and lasts 1h40 without intermission so buckle up. Kate will guide you, it will be fun and you might even come away with something to think about.