Highway of Lost Hearts

Highway of Lost Hearts photo by Phil BlatchThe sounds of haunting wordless harmonies filling the darkened theatre provided an unexpected introduction into a captivating story of a woman who in an effort to deal with her grief at the loss of her partner, embarks on a road trip around Australia with just her dog for company.

The voices belong to duo Smith and Jones (Abby Smith and Sophie Jones) who not only composed the haunting songs which punctuate the play, but also perform them superbly, moving through the play like a ghostly Greek chorus, the songs commenting and providing context for the events.

This production of Mary Anne Butler’s evocative one-woman play is the work of Lingua Franca, a Bathurst-based theatre group committed to presenting work by regionally based professional artists.

Directed by Adam Deusien, who in 2012 co-founded Lingua Franca, with Alison Plevey, well-known in the Canberra region for her work as a dance artist and founder of the professional dance ensemble, Australian Dance Party, this production was first presented by Lingua Franca in 2021. With the assistance of Arts On Tour, this 2024 remount is being presented in The Q, as part of tour through regional and city New South Wales.

The production showcases tour-de-force performance by Kate Smith, best known as a comedian, but here revealed as an actress of depth and sensitivity with her portrayal of a self-aware woman who decides on an unusual strategy to cope with her grief.

Playwright Mary Anne Butler’s writing is poetic and perceptive. Her observations of Australiana are astute and authentic. The device of a trip through familiar contemporary country towns provides her with the opportunity to comment on attitudes and events that are intrinsically Australian revealed through the strengths and weaknesses of her character’s responses to her situation.

A reference to the Peter Falconio event highlights the sudden realisation of her vulnerability on a lonely country road. How she copes with roadkill; the request for assistance from a stranded aboriginal couple, or opportunistic advances from strangers; all events which  could have been horror stories, but as depicted with the theatrical skills of director Deusien, actor Smith and musicians Smith & Jones, challenge each member of the audience to examine their own responses to these situations.

Deusien has kept a tight rein on Smith’s well-honed comedic instincts, allowing her nuanced delivery of Butler’s text to shine. Designer Annemaree Dalziel has costumed Smith in earthy, no-nonsense travel clothes and surrounded her with a minimalist setting in which every  item has a purpose and enhanced by Becky Russell’s evocative lighting design, conjures up the loneliness of the Australian outback.

Then there’s the master-stroke, a character never seen by the audience but so skilfully conjured up by writer and actor that it almost steals the show; that extraordinarily perceptive dog.

A compelling demonstration of the strengths of regional theatre, Lingua Franca’s production of Highway of Lost Hearts is a surprisingly uplifting play given a thoughtful production guaranteed to warm the hearts of those lucky enough to experience it during this current tour.

Highway of Lost Hearts
The Q – Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, Crawford Street, Queanbeyan
Performance: Thursday 6 June 2024
Season: 6 – 7 June 2024
Bookings: www.theq.net.au

Highway of Lost Hearts will be presented at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta on 14 & 15 June 2024. For more information, visit: www.artsontour.com.au for details.

Image: Highway of Lost Hearts – photo by Phil Blatch

Review: Bill Stephens OAM