Fringe Review: 'Empty Vanity' at The Bakehouse Theatre

Words by Nicole O'Rielley

As I took my seat I thought: damn, I really need to pee. Kicking myself for this catastrophic lack of forethought, I envisioned the dance I would soon perform: systematically crossing, uncrossing, recrossing my legs trying to keep by bladder in check as it threw a tantrum to shame a bratty child denied a chocolate bar at the check-out. The door of the Bakehouse Theatre main stage closed to engulf the audience in black anticipation. It was to be the premier performance of Empty Vanity, written and directed by emerging Adelaide playwright, eighteen-year-old James Watson. The spotlight dawned on the opening scene, and within the first exchanges of charged dialogue I’d completely forgotten to think of my bodily functions—captivated, craving, absorbed.  

The brief history of James Watson is inspiring. Only starting his first year of University this week, he’s had two of his previous works produced by the Adelaide Uni Theatre Guild and was the recipient of the South Australian State Theatre Company Young Playwright Award in 2016. James, if you’re reading this, I’m slapping a gold star of ‘thanks for shattering my sense of accomplishment’ right on your forehead.  

What I really enjoyed about Empty Vanity was the respect it paid to the intelligence of its audience. Rather than washing over me, the dialogue stuck in the air, inviting you to engage with it. Stylistically, Brechtian theory was sprinkled all over this episodic piece. For those not familiar with such jargon, episodic theatre is a form which, rather than following the traditional narrative form of beginning, middle, and end, is comprised of a number of stand-alone scenes which are connected by a through-theme. Empty Vanity presented a collage of moments studying dynamically different relationships ranging from a couple returning from a funeral, to a lonely man receiving a lap dance. I identified a strong through-theme of love that steered away from purely the romantic form. Watson touches on the dark recesses of love, the paternal, the irrational, and the unfulfilled.  

The props were crude, but in a dialogue driven piece such as this it was just enough. Dramatically, some performers left me wishing to drain more character and believability from them. However, this minor criticism was over-run by the many beautiful moments.   

When the performance concluded, there was no neatly presented sense of closure—and that can be hard to swallow—but in the following hours I found Empty Vanity drifting in and out of my consciousness. If you’re someone who’s looking for blissful, structurally-sound entertainment, then perhaps Empty Vanity will leave you unfulfilled. However, if you’re looking for an independent piece of art that keeps you company as you mull over what it all means, I urge you, give it a whirl. In the amateur theatre scene, which has a tendency to be a touch conservative—a relentless onslaught of feel-good classics—it excites me to see something original, provocative and stimulating—everything that Empty Vanity was and is. 

Empty Vanity is showing at the Bakehouse Theatre until the 4th of March. Shows commence at 6pm. Tickets are dirt cheap! Find them here