She may be the “harbinger of death” but Maureen will give you life

Jonny Hawkins in "Maureen: Harbinger of Death". Photo: Yaya Stempler/supplied.

Review: Maureen: Harbinger of Death at the Sydney Festival, Reginald Theatre, Friday, 15 January. By Gary Nunn, Sydney Sentinel editor-at-large.

“Be kind. Not polite. Politeness is a personality bypass for boring people who desperately want to be liked.”

This gem is the axiom of Maureen, the “darling of Darlinghust”. 

It’s one of her house rules, as we’re invited into her bohemian living room in Kings Cross (“mostly full of cross queens!”) to chew the fat, munch Jatz biscuits (handed out from a tin to the audience) and watch her smoke as she regales us with stories from her long and colourful life. 

It’s the kind of Oscar Wildean one-liner that makes this 70-minute one woman show as delicious as those biscuits.

And the kind of one-liner that only a working class lady of a certain age could’ve coined, and only a queer ear could’ve properly perceived, remembered and celebrated. 

Jonny Hawkins, the show’s lead and co-creator along with Nell Ranney, reveals an open secret at the show’s start: there’s often a very special relationship between younger gay men and elderly women. They both have a tendency to “dethrone the serious” as Susan Sontag wrote in Notes on Camp. 

Rather than homogenise, though, Hawkins zones in on his own unique relationships with older women – they’ve been his bosses, neighbours, friends and favourite fictional characters. It’s a rewarding example of show, don’t tell. 

To tell this story, Hawkins has borrowed a bit of life from these women and wrapped them up in the skin of a character: “a very real and dear friend Maureen.” She’s a hoot. You leave wishing she’d been your friend, or your nan.

The show, then, is actually a one-man show; to play Maureen, Hawkins adopts minimal drag and allows his acting to do the talking: from the shaky, awkward way he opens the camp cigarette box to the delivery of those pithy aphorisms, which entertain Maureen herself as much as the audience in her living room – you’re truly transported. Even losing her train of thought is tackled with the unique self-deprecating humour of the working class dame. It’s convincing and it’s hilarious. 

Jonny Hawkins on stage in Maureen: Harbinger of Death. Photo: Yaya Stempler/supplied.

Originally staged by The Griffin Theatre Company last year, this is a joyous show, and the perfect homegrown talent transfer for this year’s Sydney Festival. Don’t be deterred by the dark title – the show even makes death an uplifting theme. “That was perfect for him,” Maureen says of a fitting death to one of the many eccentric or gay men she befriended in her life. It becomes another Maureen axiom; how to have a good death as a fitting end to a life well lived. 

Maureen is a talker and a flirt. She covers the changes and characters she’s seen over the years in Kings Cross then swings around to some classical mythology and art, and back again to the grittier, wry observations and personalities of city life.

There are more tender moments. “Sometimes a meal is just a disguise for a want to be together, even if we don’t talk much,” she says. Then there’s the considerate action she describes taking to ensure her trans neighbour has a dignified death, told with care and comedy. 

Delusion and storytelling embellishments are things the urbane Maureen embraces rather than denies; she’s guilty of both and encourages the latter. The darker moments of senility are few and far between, and signalled with ominous lighting – but it’s their brevity that maximises the punch. Even the jauntiest of storytellers has their demons and defects. 

It’s a largely static show and the easy, witty repartee Maureen has with the Sydney Festival staff member makes you yearn for more improv and more characters from the highly skilled and eminently watchable Jonny Hawkins. 

Ultimately, the storytelling is so vivid and Maureen’s characterisation so vivacious, that what the show lacks in movement, it compensates for in charm. 

We come full circle with Maureen, who shuns small talk: “Politeness,” she ends with, “is a code someone else sets. But kindness …” she trails off into ellipsis, shakily thudding her heart – while stealing ours.

Maureen: Harbinger of Death plays until Saturday, 23 January at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Chippendale as part of the 2021 Sydney Festival. Tickets ($39 plus booking fee) available at www.sydneyfestival.org.au/events/maureen-harbinger-death.

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1