From the hilarity of Calendar Girls to Goulburn’s historic and unique connection to Miles Franklin, Christine Bentley has played numerous stage characters. Most recently, the Lieder Theatre star played Mrs Abell, the mother of the protagonist in The Interesting Mrs Abell, which ran in Goulburn from 16-24 April.
The daughter of a barrister, Christine grew up in the Sydney suburb of Linfield and began her stage career from age three with elocution lessons. Later, as a teenager, thanks to a neighbour, she attended the Marian Street Theatre in Killara.
“Once I left school I really didn’t do anything [onstage] until I left Sydney and moved to Crookwell in 1980,” says Christine. “The Crookwell Amateur Dramatic Society [CADS] had folded, and then mostly it was teachers – notably Anne Cleary – who resurrected CADS’ music hall productions which were much fun and led me to the Lieder Theatre.”
Her role as a daughter in the tragicomedy, A Month of Sundays, in 2003, was perhaps her most challenging role, opposite stage legend John Spicer. He had suddenly lost his wife, Mary, the love of his life who had been directing the play. The cast was lost, not knowing what to do until John courageously insisted the show continue. He never wavered from his role.
“Stan Henderson stepped in and took over the directing and John just felt Mary would have liked us to put the play on, so we did,” says Christine. “It was a pretty sad time. It was quite a poignant play, too. He was in an old people’s home, I was his daughter who didn’t visit him very often. To have to keep going… oh gosh. Anyway, we did.”
Mary had been an accomplished actor in London, and John a successful playwright, director and actor.
“Mary’s death, I mean it was like Prince Philip and the Queen, sort of a unit,” says Christine. “He was really at a loss when she passed away.”
The Spicers had devoted all their resources, talent and energy into the Lieder Theatre.
“They were so wonderful; they were a team,” says Christine. “John was an amazing director. We were all probably a little bit scared of him. He always knew exactly what he wanted.
“He was very disciplined – probably nowadays you would say he was old school. When he started rehearsals he would have all the blockings [positions of actors] all down and tell you exactly what you had to do, and when and where, whereas nowadays modern directing is more collaborative.
“You knew where you stood with him. Mary was just gorgeous. I acted with both of them, as well as being directed by him.”
John also excelled as a writer of local historic plays, a tradition continuing with local author Annie Bilton’s The Interesting Mrs Abell. Her play brings to life the true story of Betsy Balcombe who wrote a best-seller based on her relationship with French military and political leader Napoleon Bonaparte, and later married Edward Abell.
“It is quite amazing – I had never heard of the story,” says Christine. “The Abells lived in Bungonia for quite a while. She was a child on St Helena when Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled, and they were friends of the family.”
The Lieder Theatre presented preview performances of The Interesting Mrs Abell in little churches at Bungonia and Marulan before its opening night in Goulburn.
The village audiences were delighted to see Annie incorporate many local names to bring their communities to life.
Handmade costumes were standouts in the production thanks to Pauline Mullen and Helena Bozzetto who made Erin Williams’s red dress specifically for the play. Christine, Pauline and Helena are Lieder Theatre’s wardrobe team.
“Helena has been an absolute treasure,” says Christine. “She is fabulous. She can sew; she can create things.”
Asking Christine to name her all-time favourite role is too hard, like asking for her favourite child. However, she most enjoys comedy.
“Calendar Girls was amazing,” she says. “We had a fantastic reception to that. And plays such as Australia Day, which was just fun. When you get to play a fun character, that’s great. Someone in the audience told me I really reminded him of his aunty so it was quite funny.”
A stage experience she still savours was playing Miles Franklin’s mother in Miles Franklin: A Brilliant Career – “I’m always somebody’s mother,” says Christine – when her elder brother, William, an avid theatre goer in Sydney, joined the audience. Local playwright Jenny Lamb wrote the script.
“Oh, that was so great,” says Christine. “He loved the way we started in the foyer pretending it was the prize-giving in the school. That’s one of [Lieder Theatre’s artistic director] Chrisjohn Hancock’s many strengths: staging. Moving around the theatre, working with that limited theatre and coming up with amazing ideas to extend and move things. This is 30 years since Chrisjohn took over – 30 years. I cannot believe it.”