When my mother wanted to be disparaging about the pop bands my sister and I liked she would sometimes say: “Pah! They’re just cardboard cut-outs!” In Manual Cinema’s Lula del Ray this understanding of teenage heart-throbs forms the basis – figuratively and literally – to a coming of age story that culminates in the message that young women should dream big and – again literally – aim for the moon.
Slippery, soporific music performed live on-stage by Maren Celest, Michael Hilger, Eric Streichert and Alex Ellsworth realise the stupefying feeling of being stuck in a small town. Or, in Lula’s case, something smaller than the smallest town. The Del Rays inhabit an unidentified area of America that has exceptionally few connections to other Earth-dwelling humans, but an on-going fascination with any life forms that may exist in the wider cosmos.
Along with the gently rumbling and twanging music of the band, Manual Cinema construct a sun-soaked palette of pale peaches and burnt ochre to evoke a version of Americana pickled in nostalgia. Polka dot wallpaper and cherished records conjure a similar aesthetic to the momentary images in Baby Driver where Deborah (played by Lily James) recreates the perfected version of 1950’s fast-car-and-hot-chick USA. But whereas that film serves up its diner food and vintage Corvettes with a sense of irony, Lula del Ray is more of a straightforward homage to apple pie and blue denim.
The main attraction of a Manual Cinema show is witnessing the stagecraft that goes into telling the story. Shadows created via cuts out on an OHP or the movements of the performers (Sarah Fornace as Lula and Julia Miller as Lula’s Mother), are used with undeniable skill and precision. Particularly beautiful scenes include a dream sequence of paddling in a lake. There’s also some delightfully clever work with Mad Men era adverts: the American Dream for sale as cigarettes or ketchup.
I personally went as an existing fan of Paper Cinema and their similar sorcery with paper and light. The major difference between the two groups is that, as mentioned above, Manual Cinema don’t offer much in the way of humour or pastiche. Paper Cinema’s Odyssey, for example, is peppered (papered?) with clever visual asides, such as the immortal cattle unfortunately tattooed with butchery diagrams. It’s these moments of dry humour that prevent the format – a puppet show for adults – from becoming too cutesy.
Lula del Ray, on the other hand, is gorgeously realised and I imagine it will entrance a certain type of audience member – those with a predilection for purple scented gel pens and Blythe dolls, perhaps. It may have been that my cynicism blood levels were set too high on the day I watched it, but there are moments when this production tastes a bit too saccharine. A box of fondant fancies offers more grit that this whirlpool of whimsy.
Lula and her mother are chipmunk-cheeked pop ’em in your pocket heroines. And whilst the destiny of the younger indie Lou Who is a gender norm-challenging STEM career, the dismissal of her teenage fandom sits uncomfortably; as it does when any adult takes an easy swing at pop music and its performers.
Objectively, there’s no reason to criticise this show. Go for the marvellous skill of the team and music like a warm bath. But for those of us who have ever identified with April Ludgate, it might be worth giving a miss.
Lula Del Ray is on until 28 August 2017 at Underbelly. Click here for more details.