Picnic At Hanging Rock – A Dark Australian Tale

The Observatory Theatre’s latest production, Picnic at Hanging Rock brings Joan Lindsay’s haunting and iconic novel to life through Tom Wright’s reimagining of this dark, uniquely Australian tale.  Emerging artistic talent Lachlan Driscoll has created an impressive theatrical experience that successfully captures the essence of mystery and intrigue central to Lindsay’s story. 

The laser focus of Driscoll and his team in delivering a high-quality production is evident in the attention to detail accorded to the set and sound design which transports the audience straight into country Victoria in 1900 and Appleyard College, a private school for girls where we meet the students, the school mistresses, and servants.

A dark sense of foreboding swirls as we join these disparate characters who are drawn irrevocably into the eerie world of the Rock and their fate.  We feel the mid-afternoon heat, torpor, and rugged dangerous beauty of the Australian bush as the story builds towards the fateful picnic and, then the discordant, crashing horror of the aftermath.  Each scene is carefully crafted with the actors, beautifully choreographed, maintaining the energy and pace to drive the evocative narrative forward.

Tom Wright’s adaption of this story is unique.  It shines a light into the dark corners of the world inhabited by these young Australian women, constrained and constricted under the expectations of a culture fully informed by the British “motherland”; the accepted and expected way of life in the “outpost of Empire” that was pre-Federation Australia.  This jars deliciously and discordantly with the ancient and seemingly unknowable Australian landscape exemplified by the Rock. 

The wonderfully talented cast is given much to work with and they take full advantage.  Malika Savory’s nuanced execution of Sara brings the fragility of this vulnerable girl to life and her scenes with the “Headmistress from Hell”, Mrs Appleyard (adeptly portrayed by Libby Harrison) deliver a masterclass in powerful performance.

As Albert Crundall, the Coachman, Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn sets the tone for this seemingly simple yet interestingly complex character.  Albert’s common, sometimes crass but practical nature appears at odds with his bold acts of bravery and Fitzgerald-Quinn brings a laconic “Australian-ness” to deliver believability to this spectrum.

When picnic survivor Irma Leopold meets with Michael Fitzhubert, the young Englishman haunted by the girls’ fate, over a polite afternoon tea, both Jules Broun (Irma) and Téa Paige (Michael) strike the right note of poignancy and fear as Irma and Michael struggle to remember, and also to forget their experiences at Rock within this strained and constrained formal ceremony.

The Observatory Theatre’s production of Picnic at Hanging Rock is much more than a stock retelling of a well-loved tale which ponders the blurred lines between truth and fiction.  It successfully pays homage to the haunting legacy of the original story and offers new perspectives.

Balancing innovation whilst maintaining faithfulness to the source material ensures those of us still having nightmares from Peter Weir’s unsettling 1975 film adaption of the story, and those of us who are new to the tale, are equally satisfied.

Put this one on your must-see list.  With 10% off at Slipstream Brewing on presentation of your ticket you’d be mad not to enjoy the supernatural shivers, and a calming beverage afterwards. 

Performances nightly at Studio 1 Yeerongpilly on Friday 18, Saturday 19 and Sunday 20 August with 3pm Matinee performances on both Saturday and Sunday.

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Poison of Polygamy

The Poison of Polygamy is a new work adapted for the stage by Thai-Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King from a novella by Wong Shee Ping.  Inspired by true events, this morality tale of the Chinese diaspora is set during the Australian Gold Rush and sees debt-ridden opium addict, Sleep-Sick (Shan-Ree Tan) leave his home and his long-suffering wife, Ma (Merlynn Tong) in China to journey to the Australian Goldfields, seeking his fortune. 

We spend Act 1 with Sleep-Sick our unlikable protagonist, exploring the poison of opium and his travels to the Gold Fields, however the story comes into its own in Act 2 when Sleep-Sick meets the enticing Tsiu Hei (Kimie Tsukakoshi) and she becomes his concubine.  We are then introduced to the true “Poison of Polygamy” in the maelstrom of events that unfold.

As Sleep-Sick (and the Preacher), Shan-Ree Tan brings wonderful scope to these characters.  He is an astute study in guile and addiction as Sleep-Sick and embodies the fervour of the Preacher as narrator, switching between these changes of stride with precision.

Merlynn Tong beautifully expresses the sweet naivety of Ma whose nature sharply contrasts that of her selfish, unprincipled husband, whilst Kimie Tsukakoshi is a study in impiety as the bitter and jaded courtesan Tsiu Hei, who gives Sleep-Sick a run for his money. 

Ray Chong Nee as Ching brings eloquence to the role of Sleep-Sick’s upstanding, loyal friend while Gareth Yuen as the political Pan delivers his performance with intensity. He also clearly savours the role of the unscrupulous Doctor Ng.

Chan, the ethical law-abiding character who baulks at Sleep-Sick’s involvement in the black market is played with great sympathy and nuance by Silvan Rus.  Rus also makes the most of the small but pivotal role of Ma’s cousin, who persuades Sleep-Sick to go to Australia.    

Director Courtney Stewart, in her first production as La Boite’s new Artistic Director has masterfully extracted terrific performances from her cast.  She has maintained the integrity of the narrative through nuanced characterisations and has clearly given significant attention to the finer plot points.

As La Boite is a theatre in the round, the set is necessarily, minimal.  Mood and atmosphere are ably created by the smoke machines which are given a workout for the opium den scenes as well as beautifully creating the ocean during the sea voyage to Australia.  Astute lighting design from Ben Hughes ensures flow is maintained between scenes.

Through the examination of the themes of human failing and moral dilemma playwright King has masterfully explored and given voice to what it means to be Chinese in Australia.  She makes good use of contemporary language within the orthodox framework of the original 1909 work and manages to bring a lighter touch through some engaging, humorous elements.  Maintaining the power of the narrative over the 3-hour run-time means the performers need to work hard and pleasingly, this cast very ably brings continuous focus and energy. 

The morality theme notwithstanding, the takeaway from The Poison of Polygamy for me, is how stereotyping the immigrant experience is a trap.  As it is ultimately the universal human experience, we are made all the richer for the opportunity to reflect on this through such a well-crafted, theatrical work.

The Poison of Polygamy is a co-production with the Sydney Theatre Company and the production will move to the Wharf Theatre in Sydney following the Brisbane season, which ends on 27 May.

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And Then There Were None – Review

Adapting a novel with a storied history, such as Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” is no small feat. The novel has sold over 100 million copies and has been adapted countless times for visual media. Pleasingly, the Sunnybank Theatre Group’s current production of this classic story is a very successful interpretation. Director Chris O’Leary has adeptly led his team of actors and crew to bring what is a faithful and engaging rendition of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous works to the stage.

Opening night provided a few nerves for the cast and crew who had unfortunately been unable to perform a planned Preview show earlier in the week.   However, a clearly well-rehearsed team on and off stage ensured there were very few bumps in both performance and production.

Standout performances were delivered by Ashlee Hermann as Vera Claythorne, Weylin Martens-Mullane as Anthony Marston (and Fred Narracott), and Diane Watson as Miss Emily Brent.  

Ashlee Hermann’s portrayal of the young Secretary was nuanced, and she skilfully conveyed the character’s inner turmoil.  Hermann’s performance peaked in the scenes where Vera reveals her secrets, with Hermann conveying the weight of the character’s burden very successfully.  Mention must be made of Hermann’s most excellent off-stage scream.  It was so terror-inducing that audience members visibly jumped in their seats!

Weylin Martens-Mullane a relative newcomer to the theatre delivered exceptional performances as both Anthony Marston and Narracott. Martens-Mullane proved his versatility, adroitly transitioning between the two characters.  His portrayal of Anthony Marston was particularly noteworthy with the audience visibly riled by the sense of entitlement and “devil-may-care” attitude he brought to the role of the young British aristocrat.

Diane Watson possesses an excellent theatrical pedigree and brought this to bear in her impressive performance as Miss Emily Brent.  Watson’s performance brought a sense of authority and poise to the character and her scenes with the other characters were particularly engaging.  Watson very skilfully delivered the character’s lack of compassion and empathy which underpinned her fanatical beliefs, however on the lighter side, Watson will have finished a cardigan by the end of the run, such were her skills with the knitting needles and wool that were integral to her scenes!

The remainder of the cast performed commendably, with each performer inhabiting their character and clearly relishing the opportunity to bring the story to life for their first audience. The set design was well-thought-out, with attention to detail that successfully transported the audience to the isolated island where the action takes place.  The lighting design was effective in heightening the tension and suspense to create an immersive experience.  

In addition to impressive production values and excellent performances, the Sunnybank Theatre Group offers a complimentary glass of sparkling wine on opening nights (served by some of the friendliest volunteer bar staff around). This generous perk certainly added an extra level of enjoyment to the evening. With standout performances, strong direction, and solid production values this production of “And Then There Were None” is not to be missed.  Highly recommended for a fun night out at the theatre to anyone who loves a good mystery. The production runs until 6 May 2023.

And Then There Were None – Sunnybank Theatre Group

  • Saturday 29 April 2023 – 2:00 PM
  • Saturday 29 April – 7:30 PM
  • Sunday 30-April 2023 – 2:00 PM
  • Friday 05-May-2023 – 7:30 PM

This review also appears in On The House

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