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Oscar Wilde famously said “When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself”. Accidental Productions have certainly sparked disagreement between Adelaide critics with the world premiere of Molly’s Shoes, a controversial new Australian work that has confounded some, offended others and impressed many.

Alex Vickery-Howe has been called a lot of things over the last week. The local playwright expected a strong reaction to his latest and most ambitious play, but he was surprised at the level of contrast. “I’ve been labelled a christian, an atheist, pro/anti-euthanasia pro/anti-abortion and pro/anti-feminism, as well as brilliant, clichéd, absorbing, confounding, inspired and disappointing, all in one week. Who am I?”
His new work Molly’s Shoes takes place in the past and the present as three characters, physics students Elspeth and David and their formidable lecturer Molly Taffy, struggle to reconcile faith and science through their relationships with one another, resulting in heated debate on and off stage. Murray Bramwell from The Australian was the first to praise the work, labelling it an “absorbing production sympathetically directed by Joh Hartog” and an “impressive next step” for the company, a view echoed by Barry Lenny from Glam Adelaide who called Molly’s Shoes an intellectually and emotionally engaging new play” as he gave high praise to each member of the cast and creative team. Others have attacked the production for conflicting reasons. Peter Burdon writing for The Advertiser called the script “clichéd” while theatre blogger Stephen Davenport called it “an inspired, though garbled hotchpotch of themes” which he found “confounding”. Others have sided with the character of Elspeth and accused the writer of favouring David’s voice, the voice of faith in a structured universe. Other still have sided with the character of David and accused the writer of favouring Elspeth’s voice, the voice of reason and human connection in a chaotic universe.
“On opening night a couple huffed ‘well, you wouldn’t want to watch this if you were a believer’ as they picked up their coats, and then just a few days ago I was accused of pushing a creationist agenda. People want a clear winner. They want their team to come out on top. The whole point of this story is not to take sides but simply to present the debate, the flaws and the strengths of each argument, and to point out that every belief system we cling to has its limitations. What we need is each other.”
Accidental Productions’ Artistic Director Joh Hartog, who nurtured the script from early drafts through to completion, couldn’t be happier with the critical response. “When you do theatre, you hope to touch an audience to some degree. If theatre is simply a matter of an evening out, a bit of entertainment, already forgotten on the way back to the car, it doesn’t have much value. But if you cause argument or discomfort or wild enthusiasm or tears or great laughter, you know you are doing something that matters and for me, as an artist, that is truly fulfilling.”
Audiences have been vocal in their praise, sending the company heartfelt emails and letters and engaging with the cast after the performances. “I’ve never had anything close to this kind of response to a work,” Vickery-Howe says, “we struck a strong chord with a lot of people.”
For actor Rachel Jones, playing her first major role since graduating from the Flinders University Drama Centre, the audience reaction came as a surprise. “It wasn't until we were performing on opening night and heard audible gasps from the audience that I realised the extent to which this play could affect people. To me, the fact that people had such strong reactions to the production is a sign of success. It forced all of us, both the actors onstage and the audience in the auditorium, to question our own beliefs.”

Fellow cast member John Maurice made his South Australian debut in Molly’s Shoes having recently relocated from London, “When I first read the script I absolutely loved it and I did not think it was controversial at all. Then we put it in front of an audience. Every time Tim pulled out a bible, there was a reaction. On one night Jo Hartstone said her final line 'I'll see you in another life, David Moss' and a lady in the front row sat straight up and replied 'right!' We didn't expect that. It’s fantastic.”
As always, the final word belongs to the critics. Aaron Nash from db magazine is the most recent critic to comment on this production:
Molly's Shoes is a fantastic piece of local theatre with terrific performances and a rich script that will both entertain and provoke. It may be philosophical in nature but it refuses to beat you over the head with its meaning or agenda. It simply presents us with the questions that we will continue to ask throughout our entire lives and presents them in a way that tickles both our curiosities and our funny bones.”

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