Sisters doing it for themselves

Black Swan State Theatre’s Dirty Birds stars Mandy McElhinney and her sister Hayley © Photo Frances Andrijich

There is a four-year age difference between actors Mandy McElhinney and her sister Hayley, but the pair believe they are as close as twins.

And like David Tennant and Michael Sheen in the TV comedy Staged, set and filmed during the Covid lockdowns in the UK, on opposite sides of Australia Mandy and Hayley took advantage of the pandemic time to create a two-handed stage comedy Dirty Birds.

It will run at the Heath Ledger Theatre from November 18 to December 10.

While Covid gave the women time to create Dirty Birds the pair say it was really a project 20 years in the making.

Mandy, the older sister, is best known for playing Rhonda in the AAMI insurance ads, nurse manager Linda Crowley in the TV mini-series Wakefield, and family matriarch Amanda Wingfield in the play The Glass Menagerie.

Younger sister Hayley played Senior Constable Max Armine in the television series Mystery Road: Origins, and May in the socio-political play Oil.

Dirty Birds delves into the sisters’ own Irish heritage and the human struggle to survive in a society that’s constantly changing the goalposts on how to live.

Hayley says what the two women are going through is very human.

“They’re trying to figure out who they are and the boxes that they’ve been put in and how to break free of all of those things. Whether that’s the box you are put in, as to what kind of person you should be, and so they’re trying to figure out who they are really, and I think that a lot of people can relate to that,” she says.

But Mandy says it’s not all serious stuff.

“It’s really Hayley and I having a good time, It’s very playful, it’s non-linear, it’s a very joyful exploration. It’s very theatrical. it’s a real great end-of-year kind of uplifting show, done with lots of heart and good humour. 

“Honestly, Mandy makes me laugh so much. Every now and then we go ‘oh gosh, I hope people find this as funny as we do’,” Hayley says.

“Our aim was to make it entertaining and something that we would love to go and see, just a couple of oddballs, there’s nothing pretentious about. It’s a very family-friendly show as well being a joy to do. We think audiences will really respond to it. It’s very unique.” 

Hayley says she and her sister have always had a strong bond and are like-minded, something she believes is reflected in Dirty Birds.

“Mandy and I, even though there is four years difference, we share so much. We almost consider ourselves to be more like twins. We can read each other’s mind in a way and sometimes we can even have conversations with each other without using language. We’ve always been very close and had similar interests.”

And those interests include acting and their Irish heritage.

“Our father came out here when he was 19 and talked about Ireland a lot. He sounded Irish, so that’s had a big influence on us. But, you know, that thing of trying to figure out who you are, you always look into your heritage.”

“Ireland is a long way away and so all we knew of it was literature, songs, music and stories. A lot of people who are first generation Australians do fall back on to who they feel that they are culturally,” Mandy says.

“Ours was an Irish sense of identity because that’s all we knew.”

“But at the same time, we’re talking about this Irish mystical amazing place that was green and lush we were living in a place where the sun was beating down on us and we were burning in. And so it was romanticised in a way because you know we would just step outside and get sunburned,” Hayley chips in. 

“It’s like magic when you go somewhere that you don’t get burned by the sun.”

The pair both have the fair skin of the Irish.

“The characters in the play try to figure out who they are and putting on these personas exploring your Irish heritage is a big part of trying to figure out who you are,” says Mandy.

“And another one is trying to connect to the natural world that you’re in and these characters have a very difficult time trying to figure that out, trying to come to terms with nature and everything that surrounds them.

“It’s very much about us and so we relate to it and identify with it 100 per cent.”

The pair spent their early years living out of a caravan at Leeman near Geraldton where their dad was working as a cray fisherman.

“Our mum was working in the local school and it was a very small town where we had free reign with us and our bikes. It was a very, very special childhood and then we ended up moving back to the suburbs of Perth when we were in our teens. Those years of living in the caravan up north were really instrumental in shaping our creative life,” Mandy says.

And living side by side would either force the sisters to get along or drive them apart.

“It did bond us for sure, you know, because often it was just the two of us. It was very instrumental to where we are now.”

The play was written during Covid when people around the world were looking for ways to endure lockdowns.

“So much creativity bubbled out of Covid, didn’t it, when we all were locked in our houses and had to find new ways of making stuff,” Hayley says.

“We talked about doing this when we first began, and then we went off and had our own careers, completely separate of each other. And so that Covid moment where we were all so depressed and worried about theatres, Hayley rang me up one day and said, well, why don’t we do it now? And we started and had the same kind of idea at the same time, and of what it would be, and what the situation of these characters were in,” says Mandy.

“That just seemed like a bolt from the universe, or our dad, or wherever, saying, ‘yes, you both want to express the same thing, so do it now’. And we’ve just been so lucky since then. 

“We’ve had great opportunity to meet Kate Champion and work with her and then she got the job at Black Swan and then all of a sudden, the show was happening and we just can’t believe our luck. It really does feel like it’s something sort of beyond saying yeah this you and you need to do it together.”

“We’re really excited about the show. It’s an incredibly special once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience for us and we’re just so grateful for it and we can’t wait to share it with audiences. There’s lots of laughter, it’s visually beautiful you’ve got two really strong actors who are not afraid to put on funny voices and make each other laugh so I think you’re in for a treat,” Hayley says. 

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Journalist and public relations specialist Allen Newton has worked across major media organisations in Western Australia and PR locally and internationally. He and wife Helen Ganska operate Newton Ganska Communications. Allen started his journalism career at the long defunct Sunday Independent and went on to become the founding editor for news website PerthNow, Managing Editor of The Sunday Times and PerthNow and then Editor-In-Chief of news website WAtoday. As well as news, he has been an editor of food and wine, real estate, TV and travel sections. He’s done everything from co-hosting a local ABC television pop show, to editing a pop music section called Breakout with Big Al, and publishing his own media and marketing magazine.