I'm a freelance actor, travel writer, photographer, foodie and attention seeker living in the lower North Shore. Check out my blog at www.emmajaneexplores.com for more.
The man behind the ANZAC legend
Heading out to the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre is a special treat for arts and culture seekers, despite it being a bit of a hike from the big smoke of the Sydney CBD. This is my first time attending the venue and I was floored at the industrial chic of the gutted and refitted power station which is home to a number of art exhibitions and a beautiful big theatre space.
The theatre is what I am here to see, with Liverpool Performing Arts Ensemble's newest offering Simpson, J. 202 opening for a brief, packed in 4 day season of six shows. It's easy to spot the theatre entrance in the vast hall at the Powerhouse, decked out in a wall of poppies with a little wreath at the base. It's a gorgeous installation and sets my expectations high for this piece of Australian theatre.
On the way into the theatre ushers selling programs are also peddling Anzac biscuits – a nice touch given the play's subject matter. The play tells the story of the man behind the legend of Simpson and his donkey, and aims to present a very human and unique insight into who he was, his family and how by he ended up becoming the decorated and revered saviour of the wounded in Gallipoli during World War 1. A story stooped in history, Beynon's play takes us on a journey through Simpson's boyhood where he is portrayed as a cheeky animal lover who struggled to apply himself at school to his eventual departure from his home and family in South Shields to seek his fortune around the world, ending up in Australia. From there, he joins the military as a stretcher bearer and winds up in Gallipoli in the thick of the fighting on the beaches. It's here that he makes history as the stretcher bearer who uses his donkey to transport the wounded to safety until he is killed in action.
The play itself is steeped in fact and history, and overly so. Beynon's writing is so rich with facts about Simpson's life, that at times the production seems laboured and slow, however well the actors try to drive it along at pace. The stakes for much of the work do not seem high enough and much of Act 1 feels like exposition in preparation for what's to come in Act 2.
Director Josie Daly writes in her Director's Note that this is her debut as a director, and she should be commended on tackling what is a challenging piece of theatre. Overall the direction is cohesive and solid, however more care could have been taken to ensure that the actors were all performing on the same level: some were playing for the SCG and others for the more intimate space that we were in.
I'm torn by Don Ezard's (who is also an actor in the piece) set design - a quaint and beautiful traditional English cottage on one side that has been executed to perfection juxtaposed with a clumsily placed big frame with wrinkled white scrim material on the other side. This was not used enough or effectively to warrant having it onstage. The entire piece could have done without it altogether. Indeed, whilst a lot of the set pieces that came on and offstage in Act 2 as Jack heads off to war looked great, the cumbersome task of wheeling them on and off stage distracted a little from the emotional scenes in the play. That said, the bunker that takes over the left of the stage when Jack is in Gallipoli is perfect and coupled with Blair Dutney's solid lighting design gives a sense of the claustrophobia and hopelessness of the situation.
Easily the biggest role in the production is that of the hero John (Jack) Simpson Kirkpatrick. Michael Giglio brings the character to life – a great challenge for a young actor as he barely leaves the stage. Although always engaging, Giglio's Jack is overplayed and clown-like in comparison to the other performers who give nuanced and subtle performances. It's got its charm when Jack is a boy of 13, but as he gets older it does feel like he's in a different show to the other actors onstage.
The real revelation of this production are the outstanding portrayals of the women in Jack's life, his mother (played by Micky Rose) and his sister Annie (played by Charlotte Robertson). These two ladies give genuine, layered and nuanced performances that tell the story of the lesser known part of Jack's life. You don't ever get a sense that these women are "acting" – the way they listen and respond to each other is never forced, nor overplayed.
All bumps aside, there's a lot to commend this production on and I congratulate them for shedding a new light on a well-known ANZAC legend and wish them all the best for the remainder of their season.