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Under Any Old Gum Tree at Shenton Park Community Centre

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Award-winning tribute to Victoria Cross soldier’s life
Under Any Old Gum Tree Martin O'Meara VC World War I Noel O'Neill play stage performance theatre Shenton Park Community Centre Victoria Cross
Kieran Garvey, right, plays Martin O'Meara VC in Under Any Old Gum Tree with Rex Gray as his asylum attendant.

The story of Martin O'Meara VC – and what's been described as "one man's journey into hell" – comes to life in the award-winning production Under Any Old Gum Tree this May.

Written and directed by Noel O'Neill, the show is being staged at the Shenton Park Community Centre and includes songs and music written and dedicated to O'Meara, exploring his life as he came from Ireland to Western Australia and then from No Man's Land to insanity during World War I.

The play picked up several gongs at the 2014 Dramafest, the annual state drama festival, including people's choice, best actor and adjudicator's awards, as well as an outstanding achievement award at the Milly Awards.

O'Neill was originally asked to by Fred Rae, publisher of The Irish Scene, to write Under Any Old Gum Tree.

"We both agreed it seemed such a tragedy and waste of life for a man who had fought in France, was wounded three times and received the Victoria Cross to spend 12 years in various asylums and mental hospitals," he said.

"It was due to post-traumatic stress, which wasn't diagnosed until the Vietnam War. O'Meara was badly treated because they really were not equipped in those days to treat the mental horrors of war.

"The attitude was 'if a little medication helps, then a little more must help even more' – but it caused quite a lot of damage.

"I thought it best to allow the audience to imagine what it must have been like instead of the in-your-face approach theatres are filled with these days."

Under Any Old Gum Tree Martin O'Meara VC World War I Noel O'Neill play stage performance theatre Shenton Park Community Centre Victoria Cross
The real Martin O'Meara VC.

The Irish-born O'Neill has won numerous awards for writing and directing and currently lectures for the Perth Actors' Collective and WA Academy of Performing Arts. He moved to New York in his late teens, studied acting with Lee Strasberg and appeared in many off-Broadway productions.

Arriving in Perth 14 years ago, O'Neill has worked as an actor, director and writer with the Irish Theatre Players, Graduate Dramatic Society and the Old Mill and KADS Theatres.

With Under Any Old Gum Tree, he said had to be very careful and true to the dates and historical times when writing the script.

"I don't think I could truly capture what O'Meara went through during his army service and his time in the asylum," O'Neill said. "That all came from imagination, thinking what it must have been like.

"But I must say, during previous performances, the veteran soldiers were deeply moved so I felt I had touched something within them."

Under Any Old Gum Tree plays at 7pm May 1 and 2 with a 2pm matinee May 3. Tickets are $25, $20 concession, $10 children, $60 family – book at www.trybooking.com/HEGN.

The Shenton Park Community Centre is at 240 Onslow Road (corner of Onslow and Herbert Roads), Shenton Park.

Under Any Old Gum Tree Martin O'Meara VC World War I Noel O'Neill play stage performance theatre Shenton Park Community Centre Victoria Cross
Kieran Garvey and Rex Gray in a scene from Under Any Old Gum Tree.
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Why? It's a moving tribute to the life of a solider and his experiences during and after World War I – and the fact the show has won so many awards is proof this is something special.
When: 7pm May 1-2; 2pm May 3
Where: Shenton Park Community Centre, 240 Onslow Road, Shenton Park
Cost: $25 standard, $20 concession, $10 children, $60 family
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