Naomi van den Broek reviews Colour Me Cecily at Little Andromeda, 20 April 2023.
In the 1980s my mother, fresh from the breakup of the parental marriage, did what many women in her situation did. She looked for a career that could work around full-time parenting – particularly something that allowed her control over her hours of work – and a job she already had the skills and interest for: she trained as a Beauty for All Seasons Consultant. Her three daughters were early guinea pigs. We were Winter, Spring, Summer respectively, and that has been the lens through which I have viewed personal style since. To say I was excited about a show marketed around getting your colours done would be an understatement.
In Colour Me Cecily, directed by Hilary Norris, Cecily’s journey mirrors that of my mum’s in some ways: she is a woman freshly divorced, having been a wife and homemaker for the last 20 years or so, and wants a fresh start. Cecily has moved from the big smoke of London to Upper Hutt in 1984. We meet her, at the start of the show, as she tells us she is our colour consultant for the evening. We very quickly step back in time, getting Cecily’s back story (cheating husband, knocked up secretary) and meeting a raft of characters in Upper Hutt as Cecily, who initially knows no-one, builds a new life for herself (getting a library card, Friday drinks with the girls, watercolour painting at the WEA). This leads to her training as a Colour Me Beautiful consultant and finding empowerment, and her happy ending, complete with a new beau and labrador puppy.
Writer and performer Bea Lee-Smith is the only actor on stage, with very minimal sets and props – a chair with an afghan, a stool, and four Colour Me Beautiful consultation scarves hanging up the back. A banging 80s pop soundtrack and simple but effective lighting assist with scene and time transitions and keep us firmly in the era. Lee-Smith confidently delivers a range of vocal characterisations from an English accent so plummy it would make Prince Charles sound like a chimney sweep, to the classic and much parodied Lynn of Tawa-style Kiwi mangle. The audience clearly enjoy the quick vocal switches and extreme contrasts of the accents, with the stronger Kiwi accents especially getting good responses each time.
There’s always a challenge with a one-person show in terms of how characterisation is managed. Colour Me Cecily relies very strongly on voice, but lacks physical distinctions between characters (apart from the odd scarf toss or ciggy drag). Instead Lee-Smith spends a lot of time moving to different positions in the space, trying to give an idea of ‘where’ the characters are in relation to one another. It’s a big ask for the audience (and the performer) to follow, and I don’t find it convincing. It also impacts pace. Time spent workshopping the characters’ physicality, and figuring out how to make the most of the space and angles, would definitely allow for greater impact and authenticity in performance, and also make for a more enjoyable viewing experience.
The script nails the required nostalgia milestones: chateau de cardboard wine, bubblegum jeans, puffy peach bridesmaid’s frocks, onion dip, having a crush on George Michael. But there are moments that feel un-earned, especially the moment when Cecily finds the flier for the Colour Me Beautiful information session. The script relies heavily on telling and not enough on showing and as a result, I’m struggling to stay invested. My friend is most struck by a moment where Cecily reflects on the colours she loved as a child, and how they compare to her adulthood in neutrals, but these more reflective moments, outside of direct accounts of events, are rare. The ending ties up as neatly as the pussy bow on an 80s blouse. While we all sympathise with Cecily’s backstory, her happy ending feels a little saccharine, as do those of all of her friends.
I’m also sad that at no point do we get to really see anyone have their colours done! This is the show’s explicit promise in Cecily’s opening monologue and frame narrative. I was hoping for a plucky audience member to be plonked on Cecily’s stool and draped, but instead we imagine people being Autumns or Summers. I’ll totally take responsibility for having preconceived notions of what the show was going to be, but it does seem like some opportunities were missed, especially to fully explore what the colour-draping fad gave women of a certain age and stage of life when it became all the rage in the 80s, why it is still so appealing today, and how the actual act of doing a consultation might dramatically facilitate some of the more didactic storytelling. This extends to costuming: we hear that Cecily, when getting her colours done, finds empowerment in her new palette, but on stage she’s still in neutrals.
However, I’m always up for a show that centres the lives of women, especially those nearing (or passing) their pop culture ‘best by’ age of 30. Certainly many in the audience are chuckling in recognition and reminiscence. A group behind us keep a sotto voce running commentary during the show with lots of “I remember” moments and belly laughs. Like Cecily at the beginning of her career as a colour consultant, this show feels full of possibility; it could just use some more development.
Colour Me Cecily was performed at Little Andromeda 20-21 April, 2023 as part of a tour to Ōtautahi and Ōtepoti.