Highway of Lost Hearts: Heart, Soul, and the Open Road.

Highway of Lost Hearts

Highway of Lost Hearts Rating

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‘Highway of Lost Hearts’. What a beautiful title for a beautiful play. A captivating blend of gritty road trip realism and magical storytelling that explores an individual’s search for a soul and need for redemption. Mary Anne Butler’s superbly adapted novel is a True Blue, One Woman, Aussie travelling tale, where red earth meets fire, flood and drought, and ancient mountains loom over spirit-stirring waters. Our paths are both uniquely our own and universally relatable. Wherever the open road takes you, your own thoughts, dreams, and demons will be right there in the passenger seat, refusing to be left behind.

Mot is a remarkable woman whose once-unbreakable spirit is now weathered and worn. Detached from her sense of purpose, identity, and relationships, she is lost in a sea of meaninglessness, longing for peace while hungering for connection. At this crossroads in life, she’s grappling with the questions all women of a certain age face when they finally shed society’s expectations. But the spark that once drove her has flickered out.

This is a uniquely female pilgrimage and point of view. Mot is not afraid to entrust us with insights into the delicate balance between desire and defence. She is resilient in the face of uncertainty as she propels down a long and lonely 1000km stretch of relentless highway.

Director Adam Deusien optimises a pared-down and intuitive approach to these epic themes. He uses a luminous lighting design (Becky Russell), and simplistic, streamlined set (Annemaree Dalziel) which utilises forced perspective with long drops of sheer drapes. This evokes a never-ending thoroughfare where horizons expand, hopes arise, and possibilities are boundless.

Smith tackles the role of Mot, a formidable challenge of what is effectively a 70-minute monologue and (fittingly) solo performance. It’s a feat of focused endurance. Accompanied by her faithful imaginary canine companion, she matter-of-factly envisions a kaleidoscope of encounters with new people and old memories, blurring the lines between reality and reflection. With just a few basic props, a ‘she’ll be right’ laconic tone and her physicality, Smith slowly weaves a winding narrative tapestry. It’s a deeply intimate story experience shared through mind, body and immense heart.

Sophie Jones and Abby Smith imbue the beats of Mot’s story with an original and hauntingly beautiful vocal and instrumental soundscape of guitar, keyboard, harmonica and percussion. They could have sung acapella because both were strong singers who created a rich and full sound. At times the mike amplification level was a little overpowering. When it was more subdued, their lovely harmonies resonated with a melancholic depth and sacredness that echoed the emotional terrain of Mot’s odyssey of grief and growth.

Only 10 years old and on the HSC drama list, ‘Highway of Lost Hearts’ is already a distinctly Australian classic for a reason. It’s a reminder that the roads we travel are not just physical, but also emotional and spiritual. Anyone who roams solo will innately understand Mot, the fragility of her heart and the transformative power of travel. After all, the true purpose of a road trip is to connect with something greater. The rest may ponder the challenge of self-discovery and how we are all called to take this journey.

Like Mot, Arts on Tour and ‘Highway of Lost Hearts’ has ventured far and wide, concluding its performances in the Land of the Dharug People at the Riverside Theatre. The next time it revives and swings by this part of town, make sure you join the road to inner wisdom and delight in discovering more about yourself along the way. The trip will not always be what you expect, but you’ll leave more enlightened.

For future Arts On Tour performances, see: https://artsontour.com.au/what-we-do-and-why/

This review also appears on It’s On The House. Check out more reviews at Whats The Show to see what else is on in your town.

Photography by Hannah Groggan

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The Ballad of Maria Marten – Giving Voice to the Victim

The Ballad of Maria Marten

The Ballad of Maria Marten Rating

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“It’s been a year since I died, and still nobody has found me.”

A shadow emerges from a barn. It’s a figure in britches, and so begins a tale which captured the mass attention of people in 1827 – the murder of young mum Maria Marten. This true crime occurred in the village Polstead, Essex in England and newspapers sensationalized the case and the subsequent trial, dubbing it The Red Barn Murder. The Ballad of Maria Marten, written by Beth Flintoff, focuses on Maria’s life and of those who loved her, rather than the gruesome details of her death.

In the powerful opening scene, Maria (Laura Stead), her face lit effectively from underneath, giving her a haunting appearance, introduces us to her untimely death. Set and lighting designer Wayne Chee achieved dramatic visual effects such as this throughout the play, and notably when lighting the barn, where Maria is cruelly hidden for a year after her murder.

Maria is the narrator of her own story, and throughout the play, Laura seamlessly switches from telling the story to melting into a scene. By Maria narrating the play, I felt as though the author was honouring her and giving her the power to take charge of her own story, whereas, in real life, the real Maria didn’t have a voice in the newspaper articles.

We are introduced to Maria’s close friends, Phoebe (Chiara Helena Arata), Lucy (Kimberlea Smith), Theresa (Genevieve Sky) and Sarah (Jacqui Wilson), as they circle close to Maria for an effective costume change. When they move away, Maria is transformed into modest clothing as the 10-year-old daughter of a mole catcher, wearing a cotton skirt, apron, and shirt commonly worn at the time. It is here that we see the carefree, playful, and kind side to Maria, and the bonds of her friendship she has with her girlfriends. (She’s the ringleader for the Hazard Club, a secret club where they get up to numerous adventures together.) It is these strong bonds that remain a constant theme.

Music connects the audience to the 1800’s time period. The group of girls happily sing chants and dance, showing undisguised notes of joy in their own type of freedom. Violinist Chris Porteous adds depth to the story onstage. Costumes by JAS Enterprises were effective in portraying the characters believably.

Maria meets her new stepmum Ann (Madeleine Lawson) when she bounds back into her home one day. Ann is nervous and genuinely cares about making a good impression on Maria, otherwise Maria’s dad may send her away to a workhouse. This highlights how dependant women were on men for their happiness and wellbeing during this period. As time goes on, Madeleine successfully portrays the character development of Ann from a self-deprecating young stepmum to a strong protector who loves Maria.

Director Jennifer Willison put together a solid all-female cast and an intriguing story. Of course, the play has male characters, including the slimy Thomas Corder (Cee Egan) and Maria’s first love Peter Mathews (Niamh McKervey). Peter and his sister Lady Cooke (Jade Rodrigues) are from a well-to-do family, and it is through these characters where we see the strong divide between the working class and the wealthy upper class. The prejudice was clear from Lady Cooke, who initially showed kindness towards Maria and then cooled as she realised her brother was interested in Maria. This divide has echoes of truth, even now.

After the 20-minute interval, the second act takes a darker turn as we witness the disintegration of Maria’s mind after she comes under the influence of William Corder. She slowly becomes dependant on him as the audience bear witness to hearing the terrible deeds of this faceless character.

“Am I being tested for lunacy?” a dishevelled, distressed Maria with messed up hair cries. I noted that her beautifully styled hair in previous scenes had been an underlying focus, reflecting her own beauty and perhaps confidence.

It was powerful storytelling to see Maria relate her unravelling as she becomes the target of coercive control and domestic violence, yet she cannot see it, and in parallel, we also cannot see this character on stage. He remains a perceived threat to all. Sadly, the examples Maria uses are strikingly similar to the stories women who have been through this experience tell, almost two hundred years later. This is a story which spans time and must be told with the hope that change comes.

Rising amongst the darker themes in this story is the power of love and strength between friends. This is a moving tale which captured my interest for the whole play. Congratulations to The Hunters Hill Theatre on a strong opening night performance.

The Hunters Hill Theatre present The Ballad of Maria Marten, performing at Club Ryde.
Running time: 130 minutes (including interval)
June 7 – June 24, 2024
Tickets: $32 concession and groups of 10, $35 adults

This review also appears on It’s On The House. Check out more reviews at Whats The Show to see what else is on in your town.

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Limbo The Return – A Transcendental Glimpse into Another World

Limbo The Return

Limbo The Return Rating

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The cast of Limbo The Return, was extraordinary! Playing to a packed sell-out house at The Grand Electric, their opening Sydney performance transported the audience to a place of colour, music, and sensory loading. The award-winning creatives from Strut and Fret and director Scott Maidment will no doubt equal if not surpass the success of their previous show Blanc de Blanc last year and their encore in March, with this high energy vaudeville show.

There is no one particular category of entertainment that Limbo The Return can fit into. It has different elements of expertise in the acts. Limbo takes the music of the cool underground party club scene with a New Orleans feel, tosses it with a bit of French cabaret, modern dance, comedy, adding an aerial acrobatics circus spectacle to create a distinctly unique show.

The live music which continuously played throughout the show delved into the essence of each individual stage act, playing even when the crew were setting up the next performance. From the first introduction, I could tell that this was not going to be an ordinary soundtrack. We were introduced to the cast walking on stage, silently like models on a runway, to an encompassing and eclectic mix of music and sound. It was certainly a catwalk for the curious.

Composer and sound artist Sxip Shirey developed what he calls “jank” – sexy, crunchy, underground music – when he was travelling around the world.

The soundtrack not only featured traditional instruments such as synthesizers, keyboards, drums and guitar, but mostly unusual instruments such as the Polymba, designed and built by musical artist Mick Stuart, and the sousaphone – a big marching tuba, played by multi-instrumentalist Grant Arthur. Shirey, a sonic pioneer, is onstage with the band, creating sound stories using his voice with effects, a bullhorn, several harmonicas, whistles, marbles and even a glass bowl!

The cast of six took turns individually and at times together to perform gravity defying and jaw dropping acts. Each artist was a master of their trade. Choreographer Hilton Denis’ acts were comical and interactive, and at one time he even conducted the audience, involving them to be part of the music. His dancing was precise and interpretive.

David Marco Pintado held the audience spellbound with many of his acts, most notably his skill and acrobatic balance on the slackrope, even using a chair as his prop. Clara Fable’s vocals were beautiful during one of her acts, and at another time, she brought the stage literally alight with her synergetic relationship with fire. Her fire breathing and fire swallowing, amongst other things she did was incredible! Mikael Bres held us in awe with his prowess on the Chinese pole. He was so smooth with his movement gliding up the pole, he made himself appear weightless, especially when he stuck himself out at angles from the pole.

It was clear from her aerial circus skills that Maria Moncheva came from a background of ballet and contemporary dance. Her chain hanging act was a visual spectacle. Ben Loader completed this outstanding cast, most notably with his precise acrobatic skills on aerial rope. He captivated the audience with his strength and skill, seemingly playful with the rope, bending it to his will and defying gravity.

Whilst the artists were working their magic, the lighting (and set designer) by Philip Gladwell was mesmerising. He created a world in which these beautiful creatures were captured on stage, highlighting and shadowing as needed. One standout moment was the use of handheld mirrors and light, combined with the music to create an otherworldly perception.

The sexy and sometimes flamboyant, sometimes less-is-more costume design worn by the cast and musicians by Lucy Scott created the strong theme throughout this production.

Limbo is the place believed to be between heaven and hell, the setting for this show. The creators have told their story perfectly, amongst these unearthly, talented artists, floating white feathers and fire.

Limbo The Return is 100 minutes including interval. It is running from 30 May – 18 August 2024 at The Grand Electric, Sydney. Tickets from $60

This review also appears on It’s On The House. Check out more reviews at Whats The Show to see what else is on in your town.

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The Spook

The Spook

The Spook Rating

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Travel back to the heart of 1960s working class Australia with ‘The Spook,’ by Melissa Reeves, where the spectre of betrayal looms large and true friendships are put to the test.

Set within the sleepy country town of Bendigo, we are drawn into an examination of the impact of external threats on community dynamics, and the frenzy of Cold War paranoia. These themes are personal, local and global. What makes them resonate is that this biting satire is based on real life events.

Director Casey Moon-Watton presents a thought provoking and at times confronting plot packed with political discourse and fiery debates. Audiences will listen carefully, perhaps even access Google afterwards when words like ‘Trotskyist’ and ‘neo-Marxism’ are casually dropped into the conversation. Loyalty, camaraderie and treachery interweave, yet despite the seriousness of these themes, it’s also unexpectedly funny and at times wryly witty.

In the tense Menzies era, where neighbours could be seen as enemies, the characters are vividly real in their flaws. Moon-Wattons’ open, minimalist and deliberately incomplete set design places each character’s emotional journey front and centre while serving as an ironic metaphor of the story’s exploration of hidden truths and obscured realities.

We experience this story through the eyes of young and naive Martin (Cameron Drake), who is teetering on the brink of adulthood, yet lacks direction and ambition. Struggling to find his identity, he is trapped within the confines of a stifling and banally homogenous community. As with most young adults, Martin just wants to be liked, seen and belong. This makes him perfect fodder for recruitment as a spy against the local Communist Party. Drake presents an agonising mix of adolescent awkwardness and bravado. As Martin slowly comes of age, he is forced to find his moral compass through the gradual realisation that life isn’t a game of heroes and villains.

Trixie, his watchful and disapproving mother, (Courtney Farrow) is everything you’d expect to be in a middle aged woman living in a small post war country town; stoic, repressed and afraid of change. Farrow did well to widen the generational gap despite being quite young for this role. She juggles quick costume and character changes with aplomb to also play Phyllis, the bright but unwitting member and partner of world weary party leader Frank (Rawdon Waller). Frank is the strong but abrasive voice of reason and Waller displayed an accurate understanding of an angry man battling within a system that is rapidly heading towards self-destruction.

Brett Joachim is Martin’s amusingly aloof Controller – in every sense of the word. He is oily and snarky as he manipulates and corrupts his charge’s innocence. He knows Martin is missing a father figure and confidante, which makes his actions and nonchalant lack of empathy quite ghastly.

Tida Dhanommitrapap has the daunting task of playing triple roles. Jean, a perpetually late party member and a stiff-upper lipped policewoman in Act 2. Her main role is Annette, Martin’s girlfriend, who delights in having something apart from Pick-a-Box to distract herself from her utter boredom of small town, small minded constraints and complete indifference to her pending marriage. Both an accomplice and hindrance, she enjoys the perceived glamour of her second-hand status without any of the moral repercussions.

(Nathan Heinrich and Kate Kelly) deliver solid and authentic performances, while producing credible accents as the mysterious Greek couple George and Eli Tassak. Their sad plight and immigration journey is compelling and raises the stakes in forcing Martin to see the real people and motivation behind the “right little nest of dirty Reds”.

Geoff Jones cleverly weaves a subtly chilling soundscape, complemented by an array of pop music and protest songs during scene changes. This enhanced the atmosphere of the era, adding tension and mood, while Anthea Brown’s costumes captured the ultimately conservative modesty of a country town lagging behind the trends and heady days of the swinging 60’s.

We have the indulgence to observe this distinctly Australian zeitgeist through the unique lens of historical context. In light of current politics around China, Palestine and Russia, it is more relevant today than ever. Will it never not be relevant?

‘The Spook’ serves as a timely reminder, highlighting the cyclical nature of history while injecting fresh perspectives into ongoing debates, with a distinctly nostalgic flavour. See this show to reignite your political fervour, embrace your apathy, or simply laugh at the consequences of both.

‘The Spook’ by The Pymble Players plays from 15th May – 8th June 2024. See https://pymbleplayers.com.au/the-spook for details.

This review also appears on It’s On The House. Check out more reviews at Whats The Show to see what else is on in your town.

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