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Lucy Pickering, 23 March 2014

Gloria’s Handbag packs in six characters, expert storytelling, opera singing and magic tricks; all performed by a cast of one.  Helen Moulder as Gloria is a marvel, effortlessly moving between scenes and characters and enchanting the audience for 1hr and 20 mins.

The studio space of Circa Two was full for the World Premiere of Willow Productions’ latest show. On stage, the simple set provided no more than the furniture for Gloria’s lounge and a podium for her fabulous handbag. Bought on a whim from an online store, this new possession brings her great joy and takes on an irresistible personality of its own!

The play is set in the near-future of 2021, where bit-coin is currency and people shorten words to a single syllable. This speech is wonderfully written and singles out Gloria as a relic of a previous generation. This future also marks the beginning of ‘The New Way’: a movement that radically changes human consumption and ownership of personal possessions. The lasting effects of this period are shrewdly reflected on through some interactive learning further into the future.

Before the arrival of her handbag, another of Gloria’s great passions is classical music. The play is scored by Mozart’s The Magic Flute with occasional bursts of opera from Moulder.

While the script is humorous and uplifting, the subjects of growing old; being threatened with ‘Retireville’ from an ungrateful son; Skyping grandchildren in trouble on the other side of the world and reducing a lifetime’s possessions to what’s deemed ‘valuable’; make the play a moving and relevant piece. Audience members are sure to see a shade of a grandparent, parent or maybe themselves in Gloria.

In her programme note, Co-writer and Director Sue Rider describes Moulder as ‘one of the gutsiest theatre artists I know’. The pair has successfully created an inventive exploration of issues that most of us will have to grapple with eventually.

Jarrod Baker, 30 March 2014

In Helen Moulder’s new solo show, Gloria’s Handbag, the eponymous Gloria is living alone, in Nelson, at age 97. She’s recently suffered a stroke, and is coming under increasing pressure from her son to move to a retirement village, presumably so he can help himself to her various assets; she’s understandably reluctant to leave the home she’s lived in her whole life.

It’s not long before we get the first hints of the play’s futuristic setting (the programme says it takes place “a few years in the future”, while press materials get a bit more specific, putting it at 2021). Everyone other than Gloria (who, at 97, must have been born in the 1920s) seems to abbreviate almost every word, in a parody of present-day millennial slang; this is amusing at first, but by the end of the show you’re beginning to understand how Gloria must feel about it. More importantly, however, we begin to get hints of the fraught political situation in the play’s wider world – a political situation that Gloria’s daughter-in-law is intimately involved with.

Moulder plays multiple roles throughout the show – perhaps most notably (apart from Gloria herself) Bellissima, the effusive personification of her brand-new designer handbag, who essentially provides a running commentary on events. And she sings, too – the play is scored with music from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, and at various points Moulder delivers an appropriate fragment of an aria. All the more impressive, given that she also co-wrote… and performs a number of magic tricks throughout the show, with the tricks themselves effectively forming a bridge between scenes.

Moulder’s performance is thoroughly engaging, and her characterisations are well observed. The play is frequently funny, to the point where you wonder if maybe it’s going to be so light as to be insubstantial – but don’t worry, there turns out to be a real dramatic sting in its tail. It’s possible that your enjoyment of the play might be enhanced by having a more than casual appreciation for The Magic Flute – but if you’re unfamiliar with opera you won’t miss too much.

John Smythe, 23 March 2014

In the guise of a play about a 97 year-old woman spending up large on a handbag and resisting her son's attempts to put her in a twilight home, Helen Moulder has, with her co-playwright and director Sue Rider, fabricated our possible future. From 2021 to 2071 technology, language, politics, education and value systems progress – if that's the word – in fascinating ways, while other elements of humans being remain ever thus.

It's not so much sci fi as socio-political fiction, delightfully presented in more than one magical mode: snippets of The Magic Flute, a magic handbag called Bellissima, some conjuring tricks and the simple sorcery of Moulder's multi-character solo performance of a highly imaginative script.

Gloria Williamson from Nelson wants to hang on to a lifetime of stuff (she is still in the house she grew up in) because that is what keeps her memories alive. Twenty seven wooden blocks represent an eclectic array of things – inherited from her ancestors as well as accumulated by Gloria – but Gloria fears the emerging orthodoxy, according to her daughter-in-law's New Way Party, is that there needs to be a limit on owning personal objects.

Craig, Gloria's globally wheeler-dealing son, interfaces with clients and colleagues via an i-pal both on his wrist and in his ear. His favoured expletive is “frack” or “fracking” while his daughter Nikki - arrested in Malaysia for a more old-fashioned kind of possession – calls awesome things “astral”.

Initially it seems Craig's habit of dropping the last syllable from words is his personal “pretensh” (pretention) but a couple of generations later – as imagined by Gloria, unless she really is 113 – it is the newspeak of the New Way era. Kate, Craig's politician wife, is prime minister, and Nikki's ‘daught' Astra is cyber-seminating with us, as hologram scholars in 2071, about why 2021 was “the commencing time of the Great Shift”. It's the magic of “manual cognisizing”, in which we are schooled, that returns us to that future.  

The set-up seems quite convoluted when one tries to disentangle the components but the flow of the show is entirely consistent (I imagine) with the fertile mind of a nonagenarian who has suffered a stroke and is facing socio-political change as well as her mortality. Not that all is fantastical. WordPal allows her to communicate to Julian, the odd job man who grounds her, the play and us in a reality we can recognize.

The titular handbag, bought online and delivered early in the play, has a charmingly seductive Italian persona. The diametric opposite of ‘an old bag', Bellissima becomes the repository for the odd artifact to be wondered at in the future, and the vanishing remnants of Gloria's life which re-materialise as flimsy wisps of coloured cloth, magically metamorphosing as metaphors for change and loss.

Gloria is also minded to sing snatches from The Magic Flute that hauntingly express such inner states as sweet devotion, death and vengeance, the silence she is sentenced to and desolation.

Helen Moulder is so relaxed and connected in performance it is easy to take her writing, acting, singing and conjuring talents for granted. There are so many goodies in Gloria's Handbag it's well worth rummaging through in retrospect. 

Daniel Allan, 25 August 2014

Actress Plays With Magic

Gloria’s Handbag is a quirky and eclectic little gem about ageing, how we treat our elderly and the devotion we have for owning objects. That would be plenty for a solo performer to handle, but it also forecasts a future where we have statutorily eliminated our addiction to clutter.

The year is 2021 and Gloria Williamson, a retired music teacher of Nelson, is 97 years old. Her son Craig, in between future-speak phone conversations, is trying to get her de-cluttered and ready for a move into a retirement village. At this point Gloria splashes out on a gloriously glam handbag. Other characters include an odd-job man, a pregnant granddaughter, a lecturer from the more distant future and the bag itself, personified as the vivacious Italian, Bellissima.

Devising over Skype and email, director Sue Rider and veteran actress Helen Moulder, have thrown the theatrical kitchen sink at this piece. Moulder switches characters constantly without dropping the flow, mustering all the vocal agility and perception of character that 40 years of theatre experience affords. She sings opera, performs magic tricks and operates sound. Yet she conducts it all with such a domestic grace that you half expect her to offer everyone a cup of tea.

The mature audience members crowding into the intimate confines of Fairfield’s ballroom were transfixed. Some it seems, were slightly confused by the swift procession of characters and plot points coming their way but, despite the non-linear assembly, the sentiments of the play shone brightly.

It is a shining example to theatre practitioners that Moulder is not content to trot out renditions of irrelevant classics, rather she is creating new magic. With our ageing population, how we treat the elderly should be on the agenda, and here is a prescient play on the subject. Moulder is devising and learning with the zeal of a 12 year old and in the touching final scene, the light striking her giggling face, she truly appeared to be one.

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