Townsville Little Theatre (TLT) returned to the School of Arts building last night for the first time since 2002. The stage adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the Australian movie-that-people-are-never-sure-if-it’s-based-on-a-true-story-or-not (it isn’t), will be performed at Dancenorth’s home until Saturday, after the recent Townsville floods eliminated TLT’s usual performance venue as an option.
***Warning: this review contains minor spoilers of a story first written in 1967***
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a retelling of Joan Lindsay’s best-selling novel, adapted for stage by Laura Annawyn Shamas. It follows the saga of a college daytrip to Hanging Rock, and the strange happenings that follow. Trust me when I say this: if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book before, save yourself the trouble and watch this stage adaptation instead.
People wax lyrical about the story being an Australian classic – but it isn’t one I would return to read time and again. It drags quite a bit, despite the mounting suspense and mysteries within its plot. Director Alan Cooke has excelled at staging a show that does its darnedest to highlight this suspense and keep the audience entranced. Some memorable performances have been paired with exquisite attention to detail in costuming (designed by Pamela Garrick), and exceptional lighting (Jeff Nielsen/ Heath Roberts).
Jacinta Ryan as the intimidating yet volatile Mrs Appleyard was a standout. Jacinta’s presence on stage was commanding, even before raising her voice, and the audience could empathise with her desperate plight to silence the masses and save the reputation of her college.
Equally entrancing was Sarah Mathiesen’s ‘Mademoiselle’. We see this dainty, soft-spoken teacher evolve into one of the most vocal by the end of the performance – all while maintaining a nice French accent.
Of the students, Casey Feltham and Aurora Roberts both shone. Casey’s Edith Horton begins the show as the bullied butt of the jokes but seemed to climb social rankings following the disappearance of her classmates. This power shift was evident in Casey’s impressive performance. Aurora, as Irma, faced the opposite fate: dropping from quasi-bully to the bullee following her [SPOILER] reappearance. Portraying a character convincingly can be quite a task as it is – but when that character’s mindset and position in society change so drastically throughout the show, this portrayal can be even more difficult. Casey and Aurora both make acting look easy, tackling these character changes with gusto.
While the change of venue allowed TLT the chance to fill more space (used to great effect at times, with a sizeable group of schoolgirls requiring as much room as possible), it was also one of the show’s downfalls. It was difficult to hear some of the characters, despite their volume most likely being sufficient to fill the group’s usual venue at PIMPAC. And while the stage was open and generous, there were several times it became obvious the backstage area left much to be desired as curtains shifted and drew focus as the large cast moved about side of stage.
The other risk arising with a young cast is a disparity between acting, and merely reciting lines. There were one or two times I felt separated from the production as snippets were delivered directly to audience members rather than the characters they were meant for, or there were pauses in dialogue as blocking was completed, however much of this can also be attributed to the way the script is written.
While gothic theatre rarely elicits smiles, Ronan Smith and Jack Lestone’s physical comedy as Michael and Albert brought welcome laughter to the show. The pair’s comic timing was commendable and their friendship brought real heart to the production.
Picnic at Hanging Rock has been retold in many ways over the decades and Shamas’ stage adaptation is one of the best. Congratulations to director Alan Cooke, his production team, and 26-strong cast for breathing new life into an Australian classic.
Catch Townsville Little Theatre’s Picnic at Hanging Rock at the School of Arts (Dancenorth) until Saturday, with tickets available here.