Isabel(le) concerns Isabel Brade, a freewheeling brothel owner with a penchant for dance, and Emma, her great-granddaughter and narrator of the show. Together they’ll teach us about their relationship, their church and why sometimes you have to stick it out despite the condemnation of others. There’s the seed of good show here, but it needs overhauling if it wants to impress.

Nothing’s pulling us into Isabel(le)’s world, save for Riviera’s insistence that it is fascinating

Brothels vs. churches seems a great jaunt; however, writer-performer Emmaleigh Isabelle Riviera’s chosen form isn’t right for the story. It should be daring: a woman who’s got the gall to stand up for sex positivity and free ideas in an insular part of Canada. But that’s not what we’re shown. It’s unmistakable that Riviera loved her ‘Nan’ dearly, but it’s a mistake to assume we’ll love her too. There’s not much to suggest that we should. Riviera’s narration drags with flat recollections and simple anti-religious sentiment. The brothel gets what feels like a five-minute mention among a sea of snippets, all barely related, from Isabel and Isabelle’s lives. The moments of levity don’t cohere, either, being either tawdry dances or punchlines so lengthy they kill all humour before they’re delivered.

There are practical concerns. Emma has her laptop onstage with her, though I guess there’s no other way to ‘tech’ without a ‘techie’. The actors also sit too far upstage, so much that they distance themselves from us and this highlights what’s wrong all round: distance. Nothing’s pulling us into Isabel(le)’s world save for Riviera’s insistence that it is fascinating. In fact, this insistence becomes so overwhelming it almost substitutes for content, tarnishing the play’s highlight in her final, teary valediction.

There’s certainly gold to be mined from Isabel’s life, but something - perhaps more dramatisation - needs to aid this excavation. What certain is that the current humdrum presentation is not what Isabel’s story deserves. 

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The Blurb

Isabel(le) is the story of Isabel Brade, an outspoken French Canadian brothel owner, and Emma’s great grandmother (Nan) and saving grace. Caught between two worlds, her upbringing with Isabel and the Mormon church, Emma recounts how Isabel’s free spirit brought her from abuse to salvation. Featuring Janice Isabel Jackson as Nan, herself, and more, and EmmaLeigh Isabelle Rivera as Emma.