Throughout classrooms across the country, Playing Beatie Bow has ingrained itself into the lexicon of Australian literature. Romantically blending the lens of the old world with the naivety of the new, the story is undoubtedly a love letter to The Rocks, with this new adaptation of the text paralleling just that.
Kate Mulvany is no stranger to adaptation, she approaches this work with a skilled hand and a purposeful touch. It is evident early into the piece that Mulvany had strong intentions and reason to adapt this story, but there are times that leave the work wanting and stretched overly thinner than needed.
The work is a solid adaptation however. The text is fresh and funny – a perfect balance of Mulvany and Ruth Parks’ storytelling. But there is something missing, a lack of a narrative through line that centers the story and gives a grounding to the audience. Unfortunately it feels like the audience needed a great deal of assumed knowledge going in to truly connect with the work.
The inflated script does give director Kip Williams a lot to play with on the stage and he does just that. The script’s world is literally created on stage as the story unfolds, with one scene seamlessly transitioning into the next – which is very akin to Williams’ signature style.
He generously leaves room for the characters and text to paint the many layers of the world around them, taking the audience on a journey through the many dark and damp streets of The Rocks. Each character feels like they have leapt off the page, with a touch of cheeky caricature and whimsy brought through from the novel.
Williams does little to rein in the pace of the work however and this does make many moments feel overly rushed and lacking in any emotive depth.
It really is the cast that makes this work shine. Catherine Van-Davies and Sofia Nolan lead a fantastic ensemble with Nolan standing out as the scrappy and skillful Beatie Bow. These two formidable performers anchor the chaotic text, acting as two strong cyphers as the world shifts and swirls around them.
Actual national treasure Heather Mitchell delivers another flawless performance – handling the more mystical elements of the story with all the fury and heart of a consummate performer. Tony Cogin, Lena Cruz, Claire Lovering, Rory O’Keeffe, Guy Simon and Ryan Yeates round out the ensemble with generous performances that display each performer’s skills as solid character actors.
David Fleischer, Renée Mulder and Nick Schlieper’s designs work harmoniously together to give a richness to the work and add a stunning array of surprises and wonder.
Each perfectly gives the world a defined time and place while still allowing for the ebb and flow of the scripts more gothic elements to surface. The designs do at times work hard to plug the holes in the at times overly taut script and choppy direction.
It would be a great shame if this production of Playing Beatie Bow got only one turn on the stage. Though there may be a lot of retooling that could be done, it has solid foundations and a very real potential to become a much loved Australian classic.
Playing Beatie Bow
Wharf 1 Theatre – Wharf 4/5, 15 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay (Sydney)
Performance: Friday 9 April 2021
Season continues to 1 May 2021
Information and Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au
Image: Playing Beatie Bow – photo by Daniel Boud
Review: Gavin Roach