Review by Abbie Gallagher
Theatre is definitely coming back with a vengeance. Everywhere you look, you’ll see advertisements for Hamilton, Frozen and other big-name musicals around Sydney. But in the lovely Bryan Brown Theatre of Bankstown, there is an ambitious new work going by the name of Bakery Hill, and much like Hamilton, it’s history with a twist.
Written by father-son team Russell and James Tredinnick, Bakery Hill is receiving its world premiere at this intimate venue following a staged reading in October 2019. The premise for the show is the infamous tragedy of the Eureka Stockade, however, you will most certainly not be receiving a dull history lesson in this theatre. Instead, Bakery Hill is what I like to call ‘humanising history’, as it is far more about the people involved and the events leading up to the rebellion rather than the single night in 1854.
The musical opens as bright-eyed teen William Quinlan (Matteo Persechino) arrives on the Victorian goldfields. Like so many others, he’s lured in with the prospect of striking rich, but also finding his own place in the world. He’s quickly taken under the wing of Henry Ross (James Tredinnick) and other colourful characters, but the phrase ‘all that glitters is not gold’ is about to hit home for everyone. The mining license fees and constant hounding of the diggers by the authorities is reaching the point of no return, and will go on to have devastating consequences.
We’ve all learned about it, but Bakery Hill takes a different approach. While there were names and figures in the cast of characters familiar to me from primary school in the early-mid 2000s, there are many details the history books like to leave out, which this musical seeks to change for the better. This is not the usual story of Peter Lalor alone. This is an ensemble piece, and unlike Les Miserables, the barricade is not the main event. Indeed, it doesn’t even appear until well into Act 2. Instead, we see the upper-class pontificating how they know better than the lowly miners. We see the trauma of a young, pregnant wife watching her husband arrested for the accidental murder of a digger. We see the close-knit community rallying together to protect each other from the very real danger. We see the frustration boiling over, and even though we know what happens, it still matters.
There is a great deal to admire in this production, not least of which the prominence of female characters who have been largely airbrushed from history. The contribution and presence of the women and children on the goldfields and Eureka is given the reverence and acknowledgement denied to them for centuries. My hat is off to the team for this sorely-needed attention to detail. While the danger of ensemble shows is the risk of sacrificing some character development, the players who are focused on feel like dimensional beings and not just figures from black and white photos.
The most interesting characters, to me, were Gold Commissioner Robert Rede (an outstanding Levi Burrows). Rede is a conflicted man, and his struggle is both believable and empathetic. A gold miner-turned-commissioner, he sees both sides of the coin and is torn between wanting to help and performing his sanctioned duty. It’s a very moving performance by Mr Burrows, and he certainly deserves much acclaim.
Another standout was Jordan Stam as Bridget Callinan. Like Rede, Bridget is a conflicted young woman questioning not only herself, but everyone around her. Stam’s voice was a highlight, and her charming presence was a joy to watch.
On questioning Russell Tredinnick afterwards, he informed me that their vision for the show was to show the real people, not give a history lecture about white men. To him I can honestly say, mission accomplished.
Rather than a programme, patrons received a production guide loaded with information about the creative process, and bios of the characters instead of the actors, bringing further weight to the reality of this story. It’s easy to forget that the names we read in books and see in frozen portraits and photographs were living, breathing humans as flawed and complex as anyone else.
Benjamin Roorda’s direction, while evidently limited to the small performance space, is dignified and slick. The costumes by Elizabeth Elwell-Cook were well-researched and insightful, and while Kevin O’Reilly’s set is obviously scaled down from his true vision, it works with the intimate venue.
Of course, the real star of the show is the music. The Tredinnick duo are immensely talented composers, and it is on full, glorious display here. The score ranges from sweeping ballads to semi-rock toe-tapping hits, and I’m salivating at the thought of a cast recording. At this preview, there were technical difficulties outside the control of the performers, which sadly meant a number of clever lyrics and capable voices were muted, and sometimes missed. This is a score that deserves to be heard in full, and I sincerely hope it is.
None of this is to say Bakery Hill is perfect by any means. It’s not. The pieces of the puzzle are fitting together well in some regards, while others need to be turned around, set aside or recut completely. This media preview was a dress rehearsal, and even considering that there were still many things to be ironed out. The script needs a dramaturg. Some characters need more development. There were technical difficulties, a short rehearsal period, an obvious lack of resources, a crowded stage and some clearly inexperienced cast members.
Reflecting afterwards, I realised my gripes with the show really come down to my gripes with the arts in Australia as a whole, especially in the wake of Covid. Shows like Chicago get revived over and over, while all over Australia are incredible artists being brushed aside, told to ‘get a real job’, and not to waste their lives on an impossible dream. We are selling our own artists short, while greedily consuming all they do without hesitation. It frustrates me no end, and I know I am not alone in this.
If only we’d invest in telling our own stories, there’s no limit to what we could accomplish as a country. We have such a rich and diverse land filled with stories that go unheard. There’s much joy and pride, but beneath there’s a hidden pain and trauma which is crying out to be told.
I for one would love to see these two composers take on the more unexplored side of Australian history, such as the polio epidemic, Margaret Somerville’s exodus from Croker Island with dozens of First Nations children, or even contemporary stories from the Black Summer bushfires.
We need to talk honestly and openly about who we are, and what we can do better. Because if there’s one thing we can surmise from watching the all-too-familiar scenes of fighting city hall like the miners did at Eureka, we clearly haven’t learned as much as we think.
Bakery Hill is a start. Now what comes next?