I am a playwright, poet and actor. I live in the Blue Mountains in NSW. Visit my blog at simonlenthen.wordpress.com
An excellent and powerful production
During a desperate escape from Singapore, during the World War II, two women are captured by Japanese troops and taken to a prisoner of war camp. 50 years later, these two estranged friends are brought together for a documentary and over the course of the interview we learn about how they met, how they bonded and what drove them apart. The two friends could not be any different. Bridie Cartwright, a down-to-earth Australian nurse, very practical, fiercely loyal, a devoted Catholic.
Sheila Richards, a spoilt teenager from a well-to-do English family, taught to maintain the stiff upper lip. Together they face the torturous conditions inflicted on them by Japanese soldiers and the bureaucratic carelessness of the British and Australian governments. They are reunited to tell their heartbreaking story. The play balances the distressing aspects of their internment with moments of levity and breathtaking beauty both in the past and the present. This is a real story told by real characters and important viewing for everyone.
Annette Emerton with Diana Jeffrey in the background. Photo copyright 2015 Phyllis Wong
The two main actors Annette Emerton (Bridie) and Diana Jeffrey (Sheila) bring these individual characters to life. Annette's Bridie is a tough no-nonsense woman delivered with tremendous energy; she connects well with the audience. Diana's Sheila is wondrous, a perfect balance of upper-class coolness and devoted tenderness. The two women are so unalike in both looks and character yet perfect counterpoints for each other.
Each has their moment on stage, ably supported by the other. Helping the audience to explore the women's experience and their relationship is the invisible interviewer, Rick, played with great sensitivity by Peter Maple. His caring voice guides the women and the audience through the events that lead to their capture and servitude. He gently prompts the women to reveal moments filled with frivolity and despair. By the end of the performance both women had the audience and each other in tears.
Diana Jeffrey with Annette Emerton in the foreground. Photo copyright 2015 Phyllis Wong
The production is excellent on all facets. The set design is a striking memorial to prisoners of war – a large wall of random suitcases. Used to define both the hotel where the women are staying and the studio where the interview occurs. Cases are used to store items, or as hotel furniture. They also represent the way we compartmentalise our memories, shoehorning them and packing them away. In much the same way that the women are shoehorned into prisoner-of-war camps, shoe-horned into the unwanted bureaucratic memory of national pride.
These cases look like they are packed and ready for disposal. Photos from the Second World War are displayed behind the wall to help the audience get a feel for the conditions faced by the women. A haunting soundscape drifts under the women's dialogue to support the emotions conveyed. At several points the soundscape is intrusive and distracting, but it generally highlights the experience giving the audience a heightened sense of place and strengthening the emotional impact of the play.
Director Ian Zammit has crafted the play with a deft touch, enabling the two leads to work well together, bringing the best from both women. This is his third time directing this play and his passion for the message of the play is clear. It is also the third time that Emu Heights Theatre Company has produced this play.
This third time around has the play loaded with symbolism and tender moments and has to be their best version of this play. Unfortunately this play is the last for the theatre company in its current incarnation. The Shoe-horn Sonata was the first play this company produced; it has come full circle and thus we are able to see how the theatre company has grown over the course of its life.
The play also celebrates its 20th year. The play has had a difficult time in getting the stage. The subject matter has overtones of racism, and is an embarrassment to many former governments because of the appalling treatment and carelessness towards civilians trapped during the war.
This is especially true for women and children. The play is a reminder that war affects everybody, not just soldiers, men, and politicians. It is a brave production in bringing the story of two women and their experience as prisoners of war. A story seldom heard. It also reinforces the need for friendship, the need to not be judgemental, and not be ashamed by the choices you make. The Shoe-horn Sonata is a fitting final production and well worth seeing.