Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Theatre: The Lighthouse Girl (★★★★½)

Benj D'Addario and Daisy Coyle
by Hellie Turner
based on the novels by Dianne Wolfer
Black Swan State Theatre Company
Directed by Stuart Halusz
Set Design by Lawrie Cullen-Tait
Costume designer Lynn Ferguson
Lighting designer Joe Lui
Composer/ sound designer Brett Smith
With Daisy Coyle, Benj D’Addario, Murray Dowsett, Mick Maclaine, Alex Malone, Will McNeill and Giuseppe Rotondella
STC Studio
Until May 14

Black Swan have delivered an unlikely little triumph with Hellie Turner’s adaptation of Dianne Wolfer’s Lighthouse Girl and Light Horse Boy.
Unlikely because the staging of historical events such as those in Wolfer’s books often suffer from either the intractable non-theatricality of fact, or the loss of legitimacy when fiction interferes with it. Black Swan have been bitten more than once by this malady in recent years with the ponderous White Divers of Broome and the clunky, unconvincing Boundary Street.
Happily, The Lighthouse Girl is a case of third time lucky.
The story has become familiar, especially after its gigantic representation a couple of PIAFs ago. At the outbreak of WWI, fifteen-year-old Fay Howe (Daisy Coyle) lived on Breaksea Island at the entrance to the sheltered waters of Albany’s Frenchman Bay. Her mother died early in 1914, and Fay tended to her lighthouse-keeper father Robert (Benj D’Addario) and – in this story at least – his handyman Joe (Murray Dowsett). Life was tough; when the supply boat couldn’t make the short but treacherous crossing from the mainland, Fay would shoot rabbits and mutton-birds to eat with a salad of stinging nettle.
The known history and the play’s story continue alongside each other as the fleet bearing the 1st AIF, 30,000 young men from the Eastern States and New Zealand, anchors in the harbour before departing for foreign, fatal shores. There is something grand and archaic about this short pause, like Homer cataloguing the Greek fleet before the assault on Troy – incidentally all but within sight from the high ridge of Gallipoli across the Dardanelles.
Fay, unable to meet the soldiers but expert in semaphore and Morse, begins communicating with them, and sending their messages home to mums, dads, wives and sweethearts. It’s a sweet, uncultivated and heroic task in the shadow of the valley of death.
Now Turner combines the fictional stories in Wolfer’s books. Fay strikes up a flag-waving conversation with a young Lighthorseman, Charlie (Giuseppe Rotondella) that continues, and becomes more intense, as the ships leave; for Ceylon, for Egypt and, on April 25, 2015, for Turkish Gallipoli.
Charlie and his lifelong friend Jim are bound by adventure and naivety, tough, handsome boys marching without hesitation into a charnel house, and the love, sight unseen, between Fay and Charlie is emblematic of the emotional bonds between those who went and those who stayed behind, and their terrible cost.
Turner and the director Stuart Halusz capture it beautifully. When Jim returns to his sister Alice (the excellent Alex Malone), damaged, haunted, but alive, she is as damaged and haunted as he is. Their embrace is tight but not warm; death, and fear of death, has left cold shrapnel in both their hearts.
Turner’s work is superbly supported in this production. Halusz finds a steady, unhurried rhythm for the action, supported by expert stagecraft, and the work of the designers Lawrie Cullen-Tait (set), Lynn Ferguson (costume), Joe Lui (lighting) and Brett Smith (sound and music) is outstanding.
As is the cast. Rotondella – who will be a star – and McNeill – who could well be one – give the boys great charm and cheeky earnestness. D’Addario’s Robert is all emotional confusion, protective and stern, searching, as the fathers of fifteen-year-old girls must perforce always be doing, for the right way to deal with his daughter’s impending womanhood. (History tells us, a little inconveniently perhaps, that Fay was married and pregnant two years after these events.)
Dowsett’s Joe is the show’s dark horse, threatening to be a sappy stock codger but opening up an attractive store of wisdom and humour.
There’s something of Storm Boy about the story, its emotional arc and its character placement, and The Lighthouse Girl has adapted for the stage just as successfully as that smash hit.
There really is very little to criticise; sometimes Robert’s dialogue gets a little more elevated than the character needs, and there’s a strange lapse of historical verisimilitude over the rank of Major General William Bridges (played neatly by Nick Maclaine), the only WWI Australian soldier, apart from, eventually, the unknown one, whose body (and horse, Sandy) was returned home. Easily fixed.
Even if there was much more to quibble about, it would be quickly forgotten because of the performance of Daisy Coyle as Fay. It’s rare that you see a piece of casting so perfect, or a performance so utterly convincing. Coyle makes Fay young and wise, brave and frightened, very beautiful, feisty and completely knowable.
She’s what we go to the theatre to see.       

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