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Picnic at Hanging Rock

by on 15 November 2017

A Thrill and a Chill

Picnic at Hanging Rock

by Tom Wright, adapted from a novel by Joan Lindsay

Wild Duck Theatre at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes until 18th November

Review by Georgia Renwick

On a cold, foggy, November night, you might think a trip to sunny Australia, via the OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, would be the perfect antidote, but if you take a trip to Picnic at Hanging Rock this week, expect a thrill – and a chill.

Adapted from the bestselling 1967 novel and critically acclaimed 1975 film which followed, Picnic at Hanging Rock tells the tale of the disappearance of several schoolgirls and their teacher during a picnic out in the bush at the turn of the 20th century. In their virginal white corsets and silk petticoats, three layers thick, curiosity draws them across the threshold of their strict boarding school upbringing to venture out into the wilderness. What unfolds will never be fully uncovered, but the girls, and the community, will never be the same again.


But this is no ordinary ‘who-dunnit’ turn-of-the-century tale of mystery. The girls do not appear to disappear into the hands of a stranger, but into the arms of Australia itself, a “sea of flame”, an ancient land where lava bubbles under the surface of their white-gloved world of “refinement”. Do the girls wonder willingly into the wilderness, or are they taken back by its raw and unwieldy power?

The 80-minute play, which runs all the way through without a break, is held in masterful suspense by excellent acting and a high level of sound and lighting design.


Tom Wright’s adaptation, which having premiered in Australia, made its UK debut at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh in January this year, is told partially in the third person. This can be a little confusing at times, but like a ghost story told round a fire, it draws you in. Another feature of this adaptation, which was originally written for five actresses but is taken on by Wild Duck theatre’s very accomplished cast of eight, is that each of the girls and women must multi-role. This really allows them to show their acting strengths and work together as a seamless ensemble.


Francesca Stone has the challenge of playing a man obsessed by the girl she was playing a scene earlier whilst Fiona Lawrie must play the Police Inspector searching for her former teacher self. I found the most effective of the pairings to be Georganna Simpson’s transition from intellectual schoolgirl to cussing horse-boy (“bloody pomegranates!”), complete with (temporary) tattoos. She brought an endearing and earnest spirit to their distinctly contrasting characters, and two distinct and well executed accents to boot. Indeed, voice work from the entire cast seemed to be of a professional standard all-round.


Susan Conte directs with the finesse of a seasoned horror fan, never showing the audience that which can be more horrifyingly heard through a long, echoing offstage scream. Before the actors have even taken to the stage the air hums with the sound of crickets and rattlesnakes and you can almost feel the prickling heat, along with the prickling of uneasiness. The instrumentation of composer Joe Evans is intertwined with the natural sounds, creating a score that heightens the tension as well as embodying the overarching theme of the play, the dichotomy of the wild and the civilised.

The set is kept simple, a few artfully decorated boxes become a log and the jagged, jutting out rocks of the Hanging Rock. The real Hanging Rock appears as a projection, an appropriate and ominous visual cue for those of us who have not seen the real thing. The lighting design from Martin Walton sees the stage bathed in red and blues, from fierce Australian sun to cool, mysterious night. The classic torch-under-the-face trick used by Stone as Michael, as he searches the rock in the dark may seem a little amateur-horror, but it is still disconcertingly effective. What we cannot see, once again, is more terrifying than what is there.


We as an English audience are placed in an interesting position in watching this play, which has not been altered since it played to an Australian one. We are made more conscious in the British character of Mrs Appleyard, whose stiff upper lip and stern brow are portrayed with malice by Nicole Doble, of our status as the colonists, as the outside, the other. Our English person’s ‘lack of understanding’, is voiced in her refusal to let any natural influence tamper with her pure, cultivated girls. To her, the rock is not a wonderous thing to be revered but, “a carbuncle in this anti-Eden”. Her teaching and her attitudes in her school in no way prepare her girls for the world of Australia, but for the colonised society in which she and their families imagine they will live.

“What is the purpose of spelling and algebra in Australia?” Irma cries at her headmistress, in a hot fit of revolt. Considering what chillingly becomes of her fellow students, she has a point.

Georgia Renwick
November 2017

Photography by Marc Pearce


From → Drama, Reviews

  1. Anonymous permalink

    It is an eight-strong cast!

  2. amyshepherdson permalink

    Is there a way of being able to watch the play?

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