REVIEW – Picnic At Hanging Rock @ Wharf Theatre, Devizes – Monday 31st October 2022

Strange Happenings

Andy Fawthrop

A wet and windy Halloween night was quite an odd elemental preparation for going to see this atmospheric play.  Set in the wide-open spaces and searing heat of 1900 Southern Australia, the tight confines of our lovely little Wharf Theatre seemed as if it would present a stretch of the imagination just a step too far.  But not a bit of it, and Director Debby Wilkinson had done a marvellous job in transforming the obvious physical limitations of a small stage into a much bigger canvas.

The plot of this mystery tale, rumoured to be loosely based on real events, is initially quite straightforward.  On St Valentine’s Day in 1900, a group of schoolgirls from Appleyard College set out for a picnic at Hanging Rock, a volcanic beauty spot in rural Victoria.  After their picnic, a group of the girls climb into the blaze of the afternoon sun.  But their idyllic day turns to tragedy as three of their number inexplicably vanish, never to be seen again.  The complexities then arise.  Despite extensive searching, no bodies are found.  Questions begin to be asked, and the answers are rarely forthcoming.  Back-stories and under-currents are discovered.  Memories differ.  Uncertainly prevails.  We begin to understand that, in fact, there are many things that we do not understand.

Using just five female actors to both narrate and to act out the story, there is little room for manoeuvre.  We are compelled to use our own imaginations to fill in many of the blanks.  The bare, stripped-back set, and the use of virtually no props, only serves to reinforce the bleakness and emptiness of the rough landscape.  We are taken through the disappearance and its aftermath, its many layers of uncertainty and a whole range of contrasts – truth and lies, light and dark, dreams and nightmares, the real and the imaginary, and the unsettling way in which facts seem to simply dissolve into nothingness. The open-ness of the great outdoors is set against the stifling atmosphere of the school, and the claustrophobia of the rules of genteel society.

This was a wonderful cast.  There were five very strong, word-perfect performances from Helen Langford, Imogen Riley, Louise Peak, Lucy Upward and Cassidy Hill.  Their pace and movement around the stage, as one role melted into another, was confident and assured.  Their ability to switch genders, voices, tones and attitudes was excellent.  Without apparent effort, they immersed you in both the story itself and into the motives and feelings of the different characters.  Totally convincing and professional throughout.  Top work.

The adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s original 1967 novel by Tom Wright is a tautly pared-back affair, yet there is no loss of poetic and lyrical language.  Previous film and TV adaptations have had the luxury of using the great Australian landscape as their background, but here it all had to be in the language and the acting.  And the five actors absolutely nailed it.  The sense of mystery was never lost, and the audience were bound in.

This is exactly the sort of production that the Wharf excels at.  The stage and the arena are, by many standards, very small.  There’s always going to be a skill in selecting the right productions and using the best directors to make the best of these limitations.  Picnic At Hanging Rock is absolutely one of those productions. Please go and see it.   This production is excellent and fully deserves your support – you won’t be disappointed!   The production runs from tonight (Tuesday) through to Saturday 5th November at 7.30pm each evening.  Book your tickets HERE

Future productions at The Wharf Theatre:

Mon 14th – Sat 19th Sept                                TITCo Evening of Musical Theatre

Fri 8th – Sat 17th Dec                                        Little Red Riding Hood

Mon 30th Jan – Sat 4th Feb                            Ladies Day

For all information about The Wharf Theatre and its productions go to www.wharftheatre.co.uk


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