Michael Futcher and Helen Howard wrote The Wishing Well using three real-life stories as their inspiration: “an uncle lost at sixteen to a hole in the heart, just after World War II; a great aunt from England stranded in Sydney with no promised job; and a Balkan restaurateur who fuelled Australia’s love of Chicken Kiev.”
From these three disparate roots, they crafted an epic, moving tale of love, hardship and loss. Edith is the play’s heroine, tough as nails and heavily armoured. She came to Australia in 1931 as a nanny, only to find the family she’d worked for (unpaid) for the whole trip had given her a fake address. Young, homeless and penniless in a strange country, she refuses to give up, even when she falls pregnant after being raped by an employer. The baby proves tenacious and won’t be gotten rid of but when he’s born he’s blue and is diagnosed with a hole in his heart. Edith is told he won’t last the year and she hardens her heart to him, preparing herself for his death. As her son writes in his diary, “she’s not hard. Just well-defended.”
Tim lives until he’s 16 and by then Edith’s walls are well and truly down. She’s protected him and insulated him from the world, keeping him at home, not letting him play with other children but she can’t stop his body from growing and demanding more of his damaged organ. With only books to keep him company, it’s not surprising Tim becomes a writer and a poet, recording his thoughts in his diary.
TIM: My mother’s love burns with a cold, blue flame, which has left its mark on my mouth, on my fingers and on my toes where she has kissed me in my dreams. I think that she has cast a charm on me, pinned it to my heart with a shard of ice which binds me to her and will not let me die if she is near. I am never warm enough, even on the hottest summer day, to melt it.
Edith is an unlikely heroine: her abrasive tongue and hardened exterior are often off-putting, but this is probably true to life. We all know prickly people who resist intimacy even as they crave it.
The story could be quite straight forward but, in typical Matrix Theatre style, Howard and Futcher have added layers to it by jumbling narratives so that the play takes place in two different time frames. One is over a short period in 1950, when Edith takes a job with a Romanian chef opening his first restaurant, The Wishing Well. He believes she will bring him luck and has been watching her ever since he saw her climbing a hill carrying the son who was bigger than her on her back.
The second time frame stretches from Edith’s arrival in Sydney in 1930 to Tim’s death in 1948, with a few flashbacks to the family and life she left behind in England. It could be confusing but the writers make it clear with their clever use of an ensemble to suggest place, time and people with minimal props or setting and with Tim’s ghostly narratorial voice. He gives us the emphasis, letting us know what to watch out for with lines like this one:
TIM: You could grant me my wish, Mum, if you wanted to. Tell me who my father was, and how I was begun. Wealthy but not nice, you said, and nothing more. You used to show me the place … you used to say, ‘This is the left turn I could have taken to avoid you father …’
The next scene shows Edith not turning left and heading for the trouble that ends with a pregnancy.
TIM: Did you make me by day, watching the metal arms reaching across the harbour? Or did he love you in the park, leaves hanging over you, breaking up the stars when you couldn’t close your eyes? Did you love him? Were you suddenly awakened by the scent of flowers you couldn’t name? […] Is that how I came?
Publisher: Currency Press
Cast: 5M, 3F (lots of doubling – could be performed with a much bigger cast)