The Wharf, February 26
It has to permeate the words, the voices and the very air. If it does, the magic will permeate us, too. More than the lovable characters, gripping story-telling and the sense of place so profound that you can smell it, Ruth Park’s 1980 novel for mature teens, Playing Beatie Bow, enchants us with magical time displacements, deep mysteries and Orkney folklore. Making that magic shine on the stage as it does on the page is the rabbit that playwright Kate Mulvany and director Kip Williams have pulled out of the hat, the pair reviving a collaboration that previously gave us Park’s The Harp in the South.
Williams saw that a story set in the Rocks would be ideal for celebrating the reopening of Sydney Theatre Company’s The Wharf on that patch after a two-and-a-half year renovation, and the phenomenal stage depth available in the malleable new space played a big part in realising Park’s magic.
Mulvany certainly can’t be accused of slavishness to the text, bending the book to her will, while seeking to swell the inherent theatricality, so you have a sense of experiencing the story afresh, rather than second-hand. She and Williams have not solved all the problems, however: the climactic fire in the confectionary store feels undercooked, and the characterisations in “modernity” (moved from 1980 to 2021, with slightly laboured COVID references) are not as convincing as those when Abigail (now aged 16 rather than the novel’s 14) slips back through the cracks in time to 1873.
Mulvany has expanded the role of Beatie into a dual lead with Abigail, and Sofia Nolan makes her an even more feisty, pugnacious, loyal, confused, eccentric and intelligent urchin than Park’s original. It’s a role with more meat on its bones than that of Abigail (Catherine Van-Davies), who is harder to realise as a protagonist without recourse to her inner thoughts. She’s awkward and petulant in modernity and often bewildered or angry in 1873, and Van-Davies does well to keep us caring as Abigail grows from girl to woman inside three hours.
The nine-strong cast covers dozens of roles. Heather Mitchell is both Abigail’s stitched-up, phone-obsessed grandmother in modernity and Granny in 1873. As the latter she is not only key to making the magic real, she sweetly catches the dichotomies of being brusque yet infinitely warm-hearted; down-to-earth and pious, yet alive to her own powers and Abigail’s.
Rory O’Keefe infuses Judah with a charisma that explains why every female in the household dotes upon him, Ryan Yates delightfully underplays the terminally gloomy Gibbie, Claire Lovering wins us with her endlessly patient Dovey, and Guy Simon shines as the fey-but-ruthless brothel-keeper. Somewhere between the writing and the performances the characters of both Beatie’s father (Tony Cogin) and Abigail’s mother (Lena Cruz) have shrunk too much.
Williams’ production teems with non-naturalistic flourishes such as designer David Fleischer’s use of just window-frames and furniture for fluid shifts of scene, while a vast stage-cloth suddenly becomes Sydney Harbour. Clemence Williams’ skirling music is so apt, eerie and evocative as to deserve commercial release, and Danielle Roffe has helped keep the Orkney accents consistent.
Mulvany has overwritten some segments, as when she has Abigail give a potted history of the Rocks, and feels compelled to connect the dots for us. But in the play’s grand scheme such moments are swept away by the glorious intertwining of the epic, the domestic and the magical.
Until May 1.