KAZ COOKE Ada: Comedian, dancer, fighter. Reviewed by Folly Gleeson
Kaz Cooke’s Ada is like a heartbreaking firecracker, full of fun and history and emotion.
The world of the theatre provokes a constant fascination. The razzle-dazzle of performance, whether dramatic or flash, is for the audience an exciting experience. But we also know that the emotions on stage, no matter how superbly and extravagantly expressed, are probably matched in intensity by the unseen machinations away from the proscenium. Many writers are fascinated by the theatre – Angela Carter, for example, in her Wise Children, and others, play with the backstage insecurities and truths – but Kaz Cooke’s sparkling exploration of the life of Ada Delray carries an extra charge of realism and social comment as the story is based on the experience of real people in Melbourne at a certain time in history. Ada’s memories are related in a monologue full of pain, vitality, affection and wit.
Based on a wonderful collection of images and fuelled by very extensive research into newspaper reports, court records, reviews of performances, interviews, birth, marriage and death certificates, photographs, theatrical posters, advertisements, archived objects and scrapbooks held in public and private collections, Kaz Cooke has produced a spellbinding story of Ada Delray and her times. All the characters, except Horace, are real.
Ada was an orphan who seemed destined for the cotton mills of northern England but her family, the Bells, had a tradition of performance and used this to provide income in very straitened circumstances. Ultimately this led her to a company of entertainers who toured the world and Australia extensively, indeed exhaustingly.
Ada is 41 and dying of tuberculosis when she is visited by young Horace, who seems to be vetting her to see if she can be granted a place in the Cottages for Decayed Actors. As he questions her and provides cakes and tea to supplement the morphia she is taking, she launches into a breathtaking tale of her history with the company. Her language and her wit are wonderful, full of cheeky and knowing asides. She reveals some of the theatrical tricks used in the shows and she tells of the terrible sacrifices members of the company had to make in order to survive. For example, Alice Bell, wife of Jim the manager, actually the matriarch of the group, had to leave several baby sons behind in England in order to be able to provide for them:
He just wanted to make enough money to keep the family out of the factories, but it turned out there was always too much family balanced against how much money we had. Jim wanted Alice to be happy but he might as well have tried to teach a giraffe to make a pudding. She thought about the boys all the time.
While we know that Kaz Cooke is dealing with real people, the emotions she explores are very much her creation and they are splendid imaginings of what it would be like to be the head of one’s own company but not in a position to control much; to be humiliated by those in high positions in a society ruled by class; to be accused of adultery and disloyalty and at the same time feted for one’s entertainment skills. As well as her empathetic creation of the emotional possibilities, Cooke has also celebrated Melbourne at the time when the Delray Company was performing. Ada is a delight but the rediscovery of Melbourne before and at the turn of the century is also a pleasure:
The city in 1888 was like being in a whirling ballroom of life. If you wasn’t impressed by Melbourne in the boom time you were unconscious. We’d sashay down to Hosie’s Turkish baths and get ourselves scrubbed and polished, and then waltz up to Parer’s Crystal Café, to see what there was to be seen aside from us. The Crystal Café was passing new then – a fountain ringed with flowers, the walls covered in mirrors so everything in the room, including you, repeated forever into the distance.
There are some great illustrations throughout the book and one of Ada herself is quite moving. The group images are also a delight and some of the acts on offer are extraordinary. Ada is like a heartbreaking firecracker, full of fun and history and emotion. If I were an actress I would be bullying my agent or dramaturgs of my acquaintance to find ways in which I could deliver Ada’s story on stage. Let’s hope someone is talking to Kaz Cooke about turning this into a play as soon as possible.
Kaz Cooke Ada: Comedian, dancer, fighter Viking 2017 PB 272pp $32.99
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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