The Performance

Claire Thomas

The Performance
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The Performance

Claire Thomas

The false cold of the theatre makes it hard to imagine the heavy wind outside in the real world, the ash air pressing onto the city from the nearby hills where bushfires are taking hold.

The house lights lower.

The auditorium feels hopeful in the darkness.

As bushfires rage outside the city, three women watch a performance of a Beckett play.

Margot is a successful professor, preoccupied by her fraught relationship with her ailing husband. Ivy is a philanthropist with a troubled past, distracted by the snoring man beside her. Summer is a young theatre usher, anxious about the safety of her girlfriend in the fire zone.

As the performance unfolds, so does each woman’s story. By the time the curtain falls, they will all have a new understanding of the world beyond the stage.

‘An enigmatic, elegant and assured novel that explores the power of art in revealing us to ourselves.’ - Charlotte Wood, author of The Natural Way of Things and The Weekend 


In The Performance, three woman are waiting in a Melbourne theatre for a production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days to begin. It has been a day of extreme heat, and bushfires around the state continue to burn into the night. Cocooned in air conditioning are: theatre subscriber and academic Margot; Beckett enthusiast and philanthropist Ivy; and lastly Summer, a drama school student working part-time as an usher. Each woman is preoccupied with her own thoughts as they enter the theatre: Margot is being pushed towards retirement by her university and Summer’s girlfriend has parents in the fire zone who are determined to stay to protect their property. Meanwhile Ivy is sitting with her old school friend, bemused by the fact that as a major company donor, she gets everything for free.

A fourth female voice enters the story in the form of Winnie, Happy Days’ central character. The choice of the play Happy Days is a genius move by author Claire Thomas. As the play begins, Winnie is waist-high in a mound of earth, physically restricted yet still able to talk. Her words drift in and out of the book’s main narrative, echoing the thoughts of the three women watching. In the second act, Winnie’s physical situation worsens, sparking even stronger reactions, especially in Margot and Summer. By the end of the performance, Margot, Ivy and Summer each individually decide to try and stop either themselves or others from completely sinking into the earth.

Although theatre lovers including myself are likely to be drawn to The Performance, it should also appeal to anyone who enjoys character and thematically driven fiction. The book is also a treat for lovers of novels set in real time. I only wish I had more space to discuss this novel’s wit, character development and creativity. And just wait until you see what Thomas does with the interval.

Amanda Rayner works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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