Never mess with an old lady – that’s the message of Ripcord, a comedy that sees Carmel Johnson and Nancye Hayes play two nursing home rivals engaged in an epic battle of wills.
When two roommates go to war
“She’s a fun-loving person who thinks life and taking every breath is a gift and you should never waste it,” says Adelaide actor Carmel Johnson, describing Marilyn.
“She can always see the glass is not only half full, it’s brim, it’s right to the top; so she’s that sort of person. They’re good to be around if you’re down, but if you’re around them all the time, it can be exhausting!”
Carmel has got to know Marilyn well while stepping into her shoes for State Theatre Company SA’s new production of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s Ripcord, which opens at the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Dunstan Playhouse next week.
The viciously funny comedy is said to offer a powerful reminder of why “you should never, ever mess with an old lady”. Or, in the words of State Theatre Company artistic director Mitchell Butel, it’s “halfway between The Golden Girls and Survivor”.
Ripcord is set in a nursing home, where the effervescent Marilyn is a new resident who loves small talk and is eager to meet everyone and have a good time. But Marilyn is no pushover, and when she encounters curmudgeonly roommate Abby (played by Nancye Hayes), who enjoys silence and just wants to live alone, the pair instantly lock horns.
Carmel says a battle over beds sees the competitive duo wage a series of silly bets that become increasingly outlandish, with secrets spilt along the way.
“I can’t tell you what it escalates to because that would disappoint you when you come to see the show.”
The cast of Ripcord also includes Nathan Page (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and The 39 Steps), Chris Asimo, Ezra Juanta and Jennifer Innes.
For Carmel, who was awarded a plaque on the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Walk of Fame in 2018 and has acting credits ranging from TV’s McLeod’s Daughters and Top End Wedding to the recent SA digital storytelling project Decameron 2.0, the play marks a welcome return to the live stage after a hiatus of around five years (her last play was Volpone, with the late Paul Blackwell).
She says she is thrilled to be working for the first time with Nancye, one of the leading ladies of musical theatre in Australia: “It’s a real treat, actually – it’s like all my Christmases came at once.”
The pair have developed the strong rapport necessary for their roles, with the comedy in Ripcord coming from the absurdity of the antics between the two polar-opposite main characters.
“The writing is so fantastic. It’s touching and funny and really goes for the jugular, too – it’s very sharp,” Carmel says.
“They [Marilyn and Abby] go through a journey together. At the end, it’s not really resolved but there’s a healthy respect for each other that’s not there at the beginning.”
Carmel also believes Ripcord can tell us a thing or two about ageing.
“A lot of people sort of close off, especially if they’ve had a hard life … where other people go, ‘No, I’m still vital, I can still contribute’.
“So it’s that two sides of the one coin, and I think there is that thing that most people don’t really see older people as vital, or their knowledge as worth giving to people, or else people don’t want to listen.”
Mitchell Butel, who is directing the play himself, describes Ripcord as “a comedy goldmine”, adding that the two “formidable septuagenarians” will “make you roar with laughter one moment and break your heart the next”.
“How lucky we are to be back in the theatre and how lucky to work on such a gem of a piece with such great talents.”
State Theatre Company SA is presenting Ripcord at the Dunstan Playhouse from November 13 until December 5.
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