The Past is Present: Review of Riverside Productions’ Parramatta Girls
Recently there has been an obsession with adapting European plays to the detriment of producing new Australian works. However, Alana Valentine’s Parramatta Girls (2007) is a powerful reminder that there are important Australian stories that need to be given voice on our stages.
Parramatta Girls is set in the present day. Seven women, all of whom were wards at the Parramatta Girls Training School during the 1960s, have reunited to revisit their past. And it is a painful past. The play is an exploration of the sexual, mental and physical abuse these girls suffered, and some of the tales are harrowing: intrusive medical examinations, routine beatings, solitary confinement, having to accept the sexual advances of their capturers, only then to be forced to give up any children that may result. It is unpleasant to accept that this was being done to young girls not all that long ago. It was only in 2009 that a royal commission finally uncovered the abuse and a public apology was issued.
Nevertheless, the play importantly reveals that trauma never truly heals; rather, it stays with a person for their entire life. As Judi says at the beginning, wounds can heal, but there is always the risk that the slightest bump could start them bleeding again. The past sees each woman struggling to cope with their day-to-day lives. At one point, it becomes so vivid that some of the women must be reminded: ‘they aren’t doing it to you anymore.’ This speaks to the fact that our past makes up a large part of who we are and we carry things inside of us for the rest of our lives. The play is really a staging of their mental torture as these women relive their past on stage through the power of memory. Though the events are over, they still play out. The wound never really heals.
There is a strong evocation of place in this play brought out by director Tanya Goldberg and production designer Tobhiyah Feller’s wonderful set. This is an important element as these memories would be inextricably linked and triggered by the location in which they occurred – in cells or dungeons, as they might rightfully be called. In this way, we see a type of Proustian involuntary memory creep out of the women. As they explore the places where they once lived they can’t help but re-experience their past.
The cast was strong, though as an ensemble they were not necessarily cohesive. This was less noticeable however, in scenes where the actresses played their younger selves. Christine Anu played the optimistic Coral with ease. She brought love and warmth to the stage that was suitably pitched to convey the play’s message of hope. Annie Byron brought light comedy to the role of Judi, a robust Parramatta girl of the 60s. Vanessa Downing played the timid Lynette well, nuancing her fear in moments of stillness and introspect. As the fiery Kerry, Sharni McDermott was both sharp and affecting.
Standouts for the production included Holly Austin who was wonderfully melancholy, at times phlegmatic, as Maree, the girl who didn’t make it. Her performance was particularly well observed as Austin did not fall into the trap of overplaying youth. Anni Finisterer was deeply satisfying in the role of Melanie, the rough and damaged rebel. She felt authentic in presenting the character’s jaded quality, and brought a much needed solidarity to the ensemble. Sandy Gore was fascinating to watch as Gayle, an old girl of quiet and confidence. The only way to describe Gore on stage and in speech is something akin to deep melodic rumbling – she draws you in completely. Finally, Tessa Rose was impressive as Marlene; her presence was strong and the character was wonderfully grounded. It’s a rare treat to see an all-female cast, especially one that showcases some of the brilliant indigenous talent that is currently treading the boards.
Verbatim Theatre may not be everyone’s favourite style: strong plot lines tend to be lost, as do certain elements of characterization, especially in an ensemble cast. The play feels quite episodic, and while a very strong sense of place and atmosphere is created it can be difficult to maintain for an extended period of time without a driving narrative force. Nevertheless, Parramatta Girls still stands out as a moving and challenging piece of theatre that tells an important story about our nation’s past.
Parramatta Girls is playing at the Riverside Theatre until the 17th of May. For more information see: http://riversideparramatta.com.au/show/parramatta-girls-2/