REVIEW: Tom Wright’s Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock
St Anthony's Catholic College is presenting Picnic at Hanging Rock IMAGE: Timothy Greensill

It’s the tale that has mystified Australia for over 50 years – three girls and their teacher go missing without a trace during an excursion to Hanging Rock. Did they take off or were they taken? And, if so, by whom… or by what?

St Anthony’s Catholic College opened their production of Tom Wright’s Picnic at Hanging Rock last night. This is the second retelling of this story staged in Townsville this year, but with the two shows taking their leads from vastly different scripts, it was interesting to see the varied interpretations of Joan Lindsay’s original novel.

St Anthony’s offering is a highly poetic piece with dark, gothic undertones. The beautiful narration – performed by the ensemble, which was expanded from 5 to 18 for this production – places Australia’s unforgiving and indifferent landscape at the fore, shrinking the characters into insignificance as a result. We see them grasping for some semblance of control in an alien world and may ultimately have to accept that the only way to gain any command is to submit to the landscape.

This talented ensemble of actors delivers a thought-provoking piece of theatre.

While some first night jitters were evident early in the piece, the performance picked up strength as the actors relaxed into their work. By the end of the show there was not one person on stage who hadn’t fully embraced their duty to convincingly tell this story.

Madison Crase delivered a tyrannical Mrs Appleyard, the headmistress trying desperately to keep it all together but who ultimately unravels in the most spectacular way. Madison had a difficult task with some long passages of dialogue to master and she didn’t miss a beat. She was so cold and calculated, I saw the woman in front of me lean over to her friend and whisper ‘Bitch!’. That was following an early appearance of Mrs Appleyard, so I can only imagine what that same woman was thinking by the time Madison really hit her stride in Act Two.

As the missing school girls – Miranda, Irma and Marion – Hannah Corken, Taneil Mitchell and Ashleigh Dodson are required to create a presence that lingers even after their disappearance. It is, after all, their absence that drives the rest of the story forward. They do this wonderfully. Hannah is a warm and charismatic Miranda, with a hint of enigma about her; Taneil’s Irma is suitably aloof (and she delivers a fabulous scene about feeling as though she is a replacement of herself); and Ashleigh’s has injected Marion with the casual cruelty that comes from feeling superior in intelligence to those around her. Ashleigh should also be commended on her attention to articulation – while much of the cast did well to project throughout the show, Ashleigh’s projection and clarity were particularly strong.

Carla Di Bella, as Michael Fitzhubert, also exhibited a strong stage presence. This young man – ‘educated but knowing nothing’ and trying to make sense of familiar things arranged in an unfamiliar way – provided some light comic relief where it was needed, but also hinted at the other-worldly powers that might be at play. Carla transitioned cleanly from proud and indignant, through lost and afraid, to accepting of Michael’s complete ignorance.

Amber Harrison’s Edith was lovably annoying; Isabella Harrison’s Albert Crundall was the endearing Aussie larrikin; and Brooke Heath’s resigned Sara elicited a genuine concern for the young orphan’s wellbeing.

These performances were wonderfully supported by a well-focused ensemble who employed some clever physicality to amp up the sense of foreboding felt by the audience.

It’s here the tech team really deserves a round of applause.

St Anthony’s continued their school’s tradition of performing their annual play on the school grounds and, in this case, the show and the location went hand in hand. It was genuinely exciting to catch our first glimpse of the actors, dressed in early 1900s’ garb, crossing the school yard. A grassy courtyard acted as the performance space and the audience was split in two by a gully. The cold dark closing in on us added to the novelty. Unfortunately, that cold dark began to turn to cold drizzle and the performers were forced to compete with light rain throughout Act One. With the rain threatening to intensify, Director Todd Barty announced that show would be moved into the school’s indoor courts for Act Two. While the audience broke for hot drinks and hearty soups prepared by the Hospitality students, the cast and crew swiftly and professionally moved their lighting towers, microphones, set pieces, seating, and sound and lighting desk indoors. It took them no time at all and, after a few quick sound and lighting checks, we once again immersed ourselves in the action as if nothing had happened. That’s the beauty of live theatre and a dedicated crew in action. Well done to all involved!

Congratulations also to the costuming, hair and make-up teams. The presentation of this cast was sensational, and that owes in no small part to the people who worked hard behind the scenes on these elements.

By far, my favourite part of the night though was hearing the parents behind me titter involuntarily as they watched their daughters tear strips off one another on stage. This kind of nervous laughter is the sign of a job well done – that the actors have built tension so effectively it makes the audience uncomfortable.

Here is a great retelling of an Australian Classic, and a unique theatrical experience.

St Anthony’s Catholic College’s Picnic at Hanging Rock runs on the school grounds until 8 June. Tickets are available at the gate.

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