What's It All About?
"Picnic at Hanging Rock" was originally written by Joan Lindsay in 1967 and was turned into a successful movie in 1975 by director Peter Weir. The book tells the story of a posh Australian girl's school, run by the acerbic Mrs Appleyard. Three of the pupils plus a teacher disappear during a picnic whilst at a local beauty spot - the Hanging Rock of the title - on St. Valentine's Day 1900. Despite numerous and extensive searches the missing are not found, leading to speculation that there was foul play.
Then 8 days later, one of the missing girls, Irma Leopold, is found alive but unable to recall anything of the time she was lost. However, the implications of the disappearance have already escalated and everyone starts pointing fingers at each other.
Before attending the showing of "Picnic at Hanging Rock - The Musical" I possibly like many others, could not imagine how anyone could make this into a musical. It was not a story, I thought, that would easily transfer into a musical format. I was proved wrong.
I'm generally not a fan of musicals. I don't understand how a character can be mortally wounded only to sing about their fate for the next few minutes instead of heading towards the nearest hospital. But in Picnic at Hanging Rock, the story, the music and the songs flow without any obvious false situations.
The music and lyrics being written by Brian Spence, a Scotsman who lives in London, somehow have an Australian feel. The opening track, Dreamtime, sets the scene, establishing the back-drop, the history, the people and the atmosphere.
With most of the characters being female it is unsurprising that most of the songs are for girls. For the younger members the sound is light and gentle (Friends and Lovers, So Complete), and the older characters have a heavier feel (God, it isn't fair). The interplay between the main characters is well structured as in Michael (the Englishman who was determined to find the missing party) and Irma (the returned girl).
The music contained re-occurring themes throughout, which helped the audience feel comfortable with the unknown content, and by the end of the performance the sound was as comfortable as an old glove.
The cast comprised of 45 performers, which is a huge number, and as such is unlikely to be performed by a professional company as it would be too expensive to put on. But this performance was put on by a youth company, the West Sussex County Youth Theatre. However, the performances should not be thought of as second rate or amateur because of youth. The quality of the performances and the production was of a high class.
How the performers moved about the small stage of the Minerva Theatre in Chichester, West Sussex, without bumping into each other was the job of Rose Ryan, the choreographer. And a fantastic job she did. The use of the full stage area was unpredictable and well planned - leaving the audience guessing which of the stage entrances would be used next.
The acting and dancing was superb (loved the "Aussie" and French accents and the Horses). Not all the singing was spot on. There were a few shaky moments during some of the male solos, however, the girls were much better. Special mentions should go to Lolly Williams who played Irma Leopold (the returned survivor), Claire Rodemark as Sara Waybourne (the butt of the head-mistress' ire) and Helen Taylor as Mrs Appleyard, the head-mistress, whose whole performance was nothing short of superb, and although she had tricky words and lyrics to cope with, she managed them like a professional. A special mention also to Laurence Ashcroft as Reverend Lawrence for having such an amazingly deep singing voice within a wiry frame. When the whole company sang together the harmonies were fantastic.
Considering that the West Sussex County Youth Theatre are not a singing company per se their vocal performances was excellent. However, without the direction of Bob Thomson this musical would have been a lesser show to see. Therefore, it is to his credit that he pulled the best out of everyone involved, cast and crew a like.
Review by Mark Hughes and Susan Sargent of Morley
Page Last Updated: 4th March 2010
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