Review by Carly Fisher
Oh how good it felt to be back at The Wharf! If you haven’t heard yet, Sydney Theatre Company’s 2 year wharf renewal project has finally been completed and the result is a beautiful new theatre in one of the most scenic spots imaginable…at the end of the wharf, overlooking the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It seems a dazzlingly appropriate home for the city’s resident state theatre company and I hope to see it filled with glowing new works that both celebrate the history of the STC but, importantly, make way for a whole new generation of theatre goers - theatre goers who want to see theatre that reflects their thoughts and beliefs, and importantly, their world. So, before I head into this review, congratulations STC! And welcome home!! Honestly, it is very very good to have you back there!
The appropriateness of returning to the Wharf with Playing Beatie Bow can surely not be overlooked by anyone. A show that celebrates Sydney and in particular, the Rocks, is a perfect homecoming production. Add to that that the cast is filled with STC favourites and you can quickly imagine conversations around the Artistic table - how can we best mark our return home and welcome everyone to the new space?! Just like this…and with Heather Mitchell and Catherine Van Davies on the stage, I have to say, they were right!
Though a well-known story to some, I have to admit, I went into the show with no prior knowledge of the storyline. Travelling through time, Abigail (Catherine Van Davies) follows Beatie Bow, (Sofia Nolan), a name and mysterious figure from children’s nursery rhymes, back almost 150 years. Both raised in The Rocks, the two girls share much in common and yet appear to be worlds apart. Abigail’s race to get home to 2021 before missing the opportunity to see her family sets the stakes for this tale and the objectives of each character, and importantly, what they need from one another are quickly established to make this story clear and concise.
The performances are what makes this show sing - Danielle Roffe as the voice and text coach has aided this talented cast in mastering complicated accents dictated not just by heritage and country, but by time too. Most of the cast of 8 swap between characters, times and accents and not one ever misses a beat. This is one of the most proficient ensembles I have seen take to the stage in a long time and it was a pleasure to watch because of this.
In my view, this is one of Director Kipp Williams’ greatest recent triumphs. The creativity of production elements and movement is superb with an absolute highlight being the genius decision to work with Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper to create a movement scene where the lights themselves age 150 years. This image will stay with me for some time - it was theatrical perfection.
David Fleischer’s intentionally bare set created endless possibilities and really showcased the beauty and breadth of the new wharf space. Combined with a perfect use of rudimentary set pieces to represent everything that came into these worlds - be it a top floor townhouse window or a boat made simply out of a table, the craftiness of this suggested simplicity was absolutely beautiful to watch.
Heather Mitchell is always a stand out for me. I simply wouldn’t miss a show that she is in. Watching her take on character after character across the Sydney stages is always a privilege and a masterclass and I urge any aspiring actors to learn more about her body of work, and importantly, her approach to her craft and her industry. A true class act, I hope to continue to see many many more shows with her as our leading lady. In Playing Beatie Bow, Mitchell’s commanding presence as both the distant but loving 2021 grandmother, and the magical and intense grandmother of 1873 was a joy to watch and both characters were achieved to perfection.
Catherine Van Davies has become a well known face too around the Sydney theatre scene and deservedly so. A supremely talented actor, it was interesting to see her take on such a young role but still she played it wonderfully. Perhaps newer to many Sydney audiences, Sofia Nolan as Beatie Bow proved that she is one to watch very carefully. Her energy was contagious on stage and I was engrossed by her performance from start to finish, not to mention, again, her absolutely perfect accent work.
The use of live music and choral rhythms added to the tension, the drama and at times, the peace of the production and was a masterful decision to include.
If I’m being honest, I was not taken by the story. I felt in many ways it was a weird, Aussie version of the Wizard of Oz - a young girl in a ‘faraway place’ guided by 4 friends (in this instance, the Bows) to return to her family urgently through the use of a precious and powerful item of clothing (here the green dress, there the ruby slippers)…the story was very familiar to say the least. I felt that the dialogue for Abigail was a bit too repetitive and at times whiney and in the hands of a lesser actor, caring for Abigail’s return would have been a hard stretch. The stakes for each character were established so early in the piece that the show felt a little too long. That said, the final wrap up of the production - though in many ways predictable - was beautiful and so well orchestrated by the cast and creatives.
Ultimately, this is a show I cannot recommend highly enough to those with an interest in working in the Arts - this is one of the most beautifully executed shows from a production stand point that I have seen in a long time in Sydney. Each member of the cast - Tony Cogin, Lena Cruz, Claire Lovering, Heather Mitchell, Sofia Nolan, Roray O’Keeffe, Guy Simon, Catherine Van-Davies and Ryan Yeates - proves their talent, their commitment to the role and their extremely high capabilities as performers. The same can be said for the Creatives and the Design Team. I left excited by what I had seen, despite not liking the story itself much, thanks to their unique concepts and skilled execution of the show.
Welcome home STC. If this is the start of what we will get to see at the new Wharf theatre, my gosh Sydney, are we in for a treat!!
Image Credit: Daniel Boud