Theatre review: The mirth in dysfunction in Perfect Day – Pictures from a Dark Room– written and performed by Coleen van Staden- the staged filmed recording

What: Perfect Day – Pictures from a Dark Room

Platform: The Fringe, National Arts Festival 2021 Dates: July 8-31, 2021- available as VOD- video-on-demand – ie anytime Tickets: R45 Language: English Duration: 50 minutes Direct booking link: Performer and writer: Coleen van Staden Director: Celia Musikanth    

Coleen van Staden’s Perfect Day – Pictures from a Dark Room is a most welcome respite from the barrage of posts on social media, in the pandemic, posturing the concept or myth of a “perfect family”. Is there a perfect family? Good question. For the most part – nope. Van Staden has written and performs in this gripping theatre piece, unfettered by platitudes and grandstanding with the construct that families are “perfect”.  Her writing is peppered with pain and lightened by moments of hope and lightness that she is able to locate, beyond the ruptures. She embraces her imperfect life which has ultimately brought her tremendous joy. I find this to be inspirational.  The writing is terrific – beautifully and pungently imaged. It made me smile as she teases out mirth from imperfection.

Perfect Day has been inspired by van Staden’s own family and its dysfunctions. In the play, we see a woman, waiting for her daughters to arrive, on “a perfect day”. As the woman waits, she rifles through sepia photos in an album, flicking through her memories of growing up. She ponders her emotionally absent father who shut himself in his darkroom, developing his photos, “fixing his images- splicing his underwater movies”. She talks about the loss that he endured as a child, left at an orphanage when his mother walked out on the family. The leitmotif of her life has been dealing with “exits and entrances”. We hear about her struggles as she makes her way as a wife and mother; mothering her offspring, imperfectly, as best as she could, carrying her own baggage. She muses:  “The lessons learned in childhood –the good bad and ugly are taken through to adulthood.”

Watching Perfect Day and the excavating of memories through sepia photos in an album, I was reminded how before Facebook and Instagram, family moments tended to be private. Now, a lot is “shared” for the public gaze. We tend to showcase perfect day moments. Others can look and say – “ahh – a perfect family on a perfect day”. However, beneath the “perfect family” on a “perfect day”, there is a lot inevitably happening which is not being revealed. Perfect Day – Pictures from a Dark Room is brave theatre, with evocative writing which has the potential to be dramatically heightened in a live performance setting.

I applaud van Staden’s unflinching honesty and her openness. This filmed staged recording is the first incarnation and I hope to see it developed further, for live performance, in front of an audience, in a theatre. For the recording, we see the woman sitting for the most part, moving around a little as she looks through her photo albums. It is a very intense play and I think it needs release from that tension- possibly more movement across the stage- the woman pacing across that stage- tracking her life.

Perfect Day – Pictures from a Dark Room– written and performed by Coleen van Staden- the staged filmed recording – screened online at the Fringe, National Arts Festival 2021

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