It’s a warm night and the open theatre is tucked among the roses of the Botanic Gardens. Alone on stage with only a chair and a cardboard box, Tracy Crisp tells us a story. She’s standing in the garden of her childhood home, now neglected and overgrown in the months since her father’s death. With just a few sentences, she evokes a scene so redolent with the garden’s scents and textures that we’re standing there with her, feeling the scratch of long grass on our ankles, smelling the pepper trees. The darkness beyond the tiny stage is rich with the perfume of heritage roses, heightening the effect as Crisp eloquently pulls us into her childhood.

Since her mother’s sudden death years before, Crisp has been searching for her mother’s pearl necklace. The heavy strand of perfect pearls she remembers from watching her mother dress for cabaret nights, putting on make-up and sliding on elbow-length gloves. The pearls her mother let her wear to her first formal dance. The pearls her mother slipped around her neck as “something borrowed” on her wedding day.

Crisp’s grief is so profound, and her memories of her mother so intimately connected to the necklace, the fact her father has lost them is almost inconceivable. The loss feels like a betrayal.

In a flow of warm, engaging anecdotes, Crisp draws us into her childhood home of Port Pirie in the 1970s and ’80s. She shows us her mother – an eccentric character full of restlessness and unrealised ambition, who made an artform of living a big life in a small space; a clever, witty and compassionate woman speaking in declarations dressed as questions, waving a Marlboro Red for emphasis.

Sliding seamlessly through decades, objects act as anchors for scenes from Crisp’s childhood and adolescence, the stories always looping back to her mother and the pearls. The script is enthralling. Crisp’s skill as both writer and performer is undeniable and it’s hard to believe this monologue was her first foray into theatre after a writing career as a novelist and stand-up comedian.

Since her first performance of this show in 2018, Crisp has gone on to write three more stand-alone pieces that together form a quartet, You Can’t Hide in the Desert, all of them circling themes of family, memory, identity and grief.

With nothing but her memories and warm-hearted charm, Crisp keeps the audience spellbound for the entire 50-minute performance. The spare staging and performance style (directed by Ross Vosvotekas) hold the focus on the portrait Crisp paints of her mother’s life and lessons learned from growing up in her orbit.

This is live storytelling at its best – riveting in detail and viscerally devastating when touching on its broader themes of grief and the patchwork of memories we are left with when a loved one is gone, clutching for any object we think might bring them close once more.

Pearls is playing at Open Air Theatre at Black Box Theatres @ Adelaide Botanic Garden again on March 19 and 20, but both performances have sold out. It can also be streamed live via Black Box Theatres’ Watch from Home platform at 6.20pm on March 20.

Read more Adelaide Fringe reviews and previews  here.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.