Age old story

minnie and liraz


My mother, quoting my grandmother, regularly reminds her three daughters that ‘ageing is not for wimps’. The latest production from the Melbourne Theatre Company bears this out.

Minnie & Liraz by Melbourne playwright Lally Katz puts paid to the myth that as people age they become meek sweet little old ladies and gentlemen. Katz’s elderly citizens of the Autumn Road Retirement Village in Caulfield are feisty, catty, opinionated, manipulative and laugh-out- loud funny.

The play opens with a ‘Celebration of Life’ ceremony, as care worker Norma (Georgina Naidu) leads the gathering of residents in a remembrance of one of their former colleagues who had unexpectedly died. Naidu captures perfectly that slightly patronising, overly-cheerful optimism replicated at nursing homes and retirement villages across the country.

The departed resident was a bridge player, and her bridge partner, Liraz Weinberg (Sue Jones) is looking to recruit a new partner. She has her sights set on the National Seniors Bridge Championship Cup.

Liraz is someone who might be described as ‘rough around the edges’. She is loud and vulgar, wears garish matching tracksuit outfits, drives around in her mobility scooter showing no respect for anyone else and is highly competitive.

Minnie Cohen, played by the redoubtable Nancye Hayes, is a consummate bridge player. She also recently lost her bridge partner of over 40 years, and Liraz seeks her out.

Minnie is elegant and charming, but also brutal and dismissive and not too keen on Liraz, and her husband Morris (Rhys McConnochie) even less so. Minnie is consumed by her legacy or, more correctly, lack of a legacy. Their only grandchild Rachel is now in her late 30s, single increasingly likely to remain that way.

And so a deal is hatched – secret match-making with Liraz’s grandson Ichabod (Peter Paltos) in return for a bridge partnership.

Katz has great respect for elderly people. Her last play, Neighbourhood Watch, was based around a former neighbour. Her interest in bridge as a storytelling tool came from her grandmother’s passion for the game of strategy.

In an interview with MTC’s Scenes, Katz spoke of the richness found in the lives of of older people.

“Elderly characters have such a wealth of experience and stories behind them. They’ve been through wars, lost loved ones,” Katz said.

“They’ve seen a world that a lot of us have only heard about.”

However, as that world is receding, the reality of a life that has not been all that had been hoped for is also captured by Katz.

A marriage that has been somewhat one-sided as a husband has valued whatever affection that might have been left for him.

A wife left bemused by a son who has escaped to the other side of the world and has stopped all contact with his mother.

A granddaughter who doggedly visits her grandparents, despite the undermining of her achievements and constant pressure to produce offspring.

A grandson who allows himself to be manipulated by a needy grandmother desperate for love and validation.

The play works because the characters are so relatable. Virginia Gay’s Rachel is achingly convincing as the granddaughter, who visibly winces as Minnie’s words lash like a sword. But Minnie herself is broken and confused by a world that has not played out in quite the way she had hoped.

Full of pathos and black humour, Minnie & Liraz is a great night out.

Showing at the Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio, until 24 June.

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