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  • Chloe Eichler

Review: Bars Behind Bars

Updated: Feb 23

Picture credit: NZ Fringe

Words by Chloe Eichler (they/she) 

Author’s Note: I know Sarah Penny, who plays Alice and Joanne in the show.

An Old-Fashioned Lesbian Love Story

Whisking us back to a world of swing jazz and giggle juice, Bars Behind Bars is an immersive experience. From the moment the audience enters, the actors are scattered about, welcoming us, having secret conversations in the hallway, sending us back in time. The show begins with a fourth-wall-breaking introduction to the characters and their lives at The Cat’s Pajamas, an illicit bar in Manhattan during the prohibition. When the bar’s owner is murdered in the back room, his wife Annie is the primary suspect of the interrogation. 

Despite having a limited area of IVY Bar to work with, and minimal props, the actors interact with them and each other in a way which makes us feel as though we’re in the audience at The Cat’s Pajamas. Making such a small space work in their favour is really impressive. The only drawback with props is that the cork ‘evidence board’ falls over a few times—finding some way to stick it to the wall, even if it takes a whole stick of blu-tac, would make some scenes run more smoothly.

A highlight of the show for me is the use of voice—the 1920’s New York accent is so distinctive that the show wouldn’t be the same without it, and they were nailed for the most part. And though the music is slightly too loud at times, the clear diction of the performers ensures the lyrics are still brought to life, which is commendable given the speed at which they fly by.

In a show with characters who do morally questionable things, it makes sense that we dislike the characters as much as they dislike each other—this was performed especially well by the three leads, creating a clear dynamic between them which invites the audience deeper into the mystery. However, we also need to connect with them, even in ways that make us uncomfortable—like relating to Bill’s resentment or Annie’s vanity. There isn’t quite enough weight in the characters’ vulnerable moments; if the tone slows right down from grandiose to intimate, the audience can appreciate them more. If we see Annie let her guard down, Eddie let go of his panic, or Bill let his anger melt into misery, we connect with them in a more profound way.  

For me, a large part of the show’s weaknesses come from its length. Because it’s only 45 minutes, there are no other suspects in the murder mystery, and the ending appears largely out of nowhere. As much fun as it was, it’s not a satisfying plot twist if we can’t see it coming, even in retrospect. With that being said, it’s still satisfying in its execution. “An Old-Fashioned Love Story” is undoubtedly the best musical number, with fantastic harmony between actors both in terms of singing and acting. Allikins and Marilyn Mansilla clearly have a great time performing the number, and their energy is infectious. This energy is also brought into the moments of comedy in the show, which are at their best when improvised and particularly with the audience—it gives the fourth-wall breaking a purpose beyond using it to introduce the characters.

With a runtime of only 45 minutes, a small space, and minimal set, props, and costumes, “Bars Behind Bars” still shines brightly. 


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