Reviewed by Tatum Stafford
Full of heart, catchy tunes, important history and iconic West Aussie references, ‘Panawathi Girl’s premiere at this year’s Perth Festival was one to remember.
Presented by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, the musical, set in 1969, follows the journey of Molly Panawathi as she heads home to Chubb Springs to visit her father, farmer Chubb, to learn more about her mother Pansy, who is presumed dead. The town of Chubb Springs is rife with segregation, and the local Aboriginal community are excluded from many aspects of day-to-day life in the small town. Molly, who has grown up in Perth, is eager to gain a greater understanding of her Aboriginal heritage, and seeks to reconnect the separate ends of the town’s population.
Firstly, there are some absolutely remarkable performances in this locally produced production. Lila McGuire is gorgeous as Molly, giving the story’s heroine plenty of grace and admirable strength. Peter Docker is also very strong as Molly’s father Chubb. Another stand-out is Gus Noakes, who bursts into the story as the bumbling yet lovable Knuckles with a beautiful crooning number and plenty of country charm. His romantic counterpart, Teresa Rose as Ada, is powerful and impossible to tear your eyes away from when she sings towards the end of the show. Great performances by Wimiya Woodley (Billy) and Maitland Schnaars (Buckley) also.
Molly’s uni friends have a number of scene-stealing moments, particularly in their introductory song which, without any spoilers, speaks to the psychedelic drug-taking lifestyle of the time. Big props to Chris Isaacs (Ron), Grace Chow (Beth) and Manuao TeAotonga (JoJo) for their committed performances in this number and throughout the show. Another highlight was the hilarious banter between Luke Hewitt (Gough Whitlam) and Geoff Kelso (John Gorton). These two were clearly loved by the audience also, eliciting raucous laughter whenever they reappeared throughout the story.
These strong performances are perfectly complemented by the live onstage band that proved to be incredibly entertaining – particularly as they became more intwined with the story as a live concert takes place in the town. Musical director Wayne Freer has done a fantastic job bringing these musicians together. Excellent direction from Eva Grace Mullaley and choreography from Janine Oxenham made the show incredibly visually appealing, cohesive, and successful in its storytelling.
It would of course be remiss to not mention David Milroy’s book for this brand-new show. He has done a beautiful job piecing together a series of our country’s darker moments, and at the heart of it, he has woven a beautiful story about family love and accepting people for who they are. I for one can’t wait to see what he writes next – and also, where ‘Panawathi Girl’ will go next.
Congratulations to this incredibly talented company for such a successful premiere. I’m sure audiences would agree it’s a fantastic show that I hope has another life either here in Perth, or across the country.