Is There Something Wrong With That Lady?

Written and performed by Debra Oswald; Director Lee Lewis; Ensemble Theatre; 18 Sept – 14 Oct

Reviewed : 22 September, 2023*

Photo : Prudence Upton

Debra Oswald chose as the title for her own story the words of a child who saw her crying in the aisle of a supermarket. What brought her to tears, she explains in her performance, was the song playing over the loudspeaker system as she did her shopping! Why it brought her to tears was the memory of it being used in the original production of her play Gary’s House – and her love for the flawed character of Gary who dies halfway through the play.

I understand Oswald’s feelings for that Gary – as did, I am sure, anyone else who directed the play – or taught or studied it for HSC Drama in NSW in the 1990s. Gary was battler, a struggler who eventually gave up, but who inspired others. As did so many of Oswald’s characters, especially ‘Therese’ in Mr Bailey’s Minder, another struggler, but one who didn’t give up!

Photo : Prudence Upton

Oswald’s love of theatre began early – but she never wanted to be on stage. She wanted to create the characters, write the words they said to each other. From Gary and Mr Bailey to the cops on Police Rescue, from two Bananas in Pyjamas to the medicos and their families in Offspring, Debra Oswald has created characters with whom audiences identified, believed in and loved.

Hearing her talking about creating and watching them come to life on stage and screen is a privilege and joy. Her description of working in “the writer’s room” is exhilarating, full of the satisfaction of collaboration, sharing ideas and jokes and decisions – as opposed to the isolation of writing alone.

Hearing her talk about the realities of being a writer is not quite so joyous. Without really complaining she tells of the hurt of rejection, and the even greater hurt of scripts or novels being ignored. Of being requested to write a series that never gets up. Of how easy it is to give up – and almost give in.

Oswald share more than her professional life. She shares memories of her parents. Of growing up Sydney’s northwest. Of watching medical programs on TV that led her to imagining all sorts of illnesses. Of romance and love, motherhood, grandchildren. Her strange in-laws and their obsession with teddy bears. And her handsome dog Clancy.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Is There something Wrong with that Lady? is more a memoir than a performance. A memoir written by a writer of dialogue who knows the importance of sequence and rhythm and pause. When to use rhetorical questions, humour, and asides. With director Lee Lewis, Oswald puts her own words into action, relaxing into the role of storyteller so that her ability to communicate personally and honestly shines through.

In her program notes director Lewis explains how unusual it is for a writer “to step out of the shadows and remind us that it all starts with a person sitting in front of a blank screen or sheet of paper.” To do so on stage is even more unusual. “It is generous,” Lewis says, “and brave, touching and slightly scary.” But Oswald overcomes any scariness with the power of her own words and her warm, outgoing personality.

*Opening Night