The Criterion Theatre

A Review of 'Picnic at Hanging Rock'

21st November

A REVIEW of 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' Which appeared in the November edition of the 'ECHO' our local community newspaper.

Spelling and Algebra - or the Abyss? Straight-laced, Victorian, most definitely "old school", Mrs Appleyard steadily drains a bottle of whisky. Parents, for their part, steadily withdraw their girls from the now scandal-ridden establishment lor young ladies she has run for many years.

A final impassioned, drunken speech - and applause from the cast. The spell is broken: it's all been a play within a play. Or has it?

The Criterion's staging of Tom Wright's Prbnic at Hanging Rock conjured up a vortex ihat sucked in the "actors" intent on recreating a mystery from the year 1900 - so convincingly that the audience was increasingly unsure where boundaries lay. Where was the divide between safe, dramatised re-telling from within the confines of a schoolroom and that which intruded from the mysterious, elemental and very unsafe Australian outback beyond?

The all-female cast was convincingly possessed by its own story. Nicol Cortese was compelling as British expat Mrs Appleyard, battling to impose an Eden-like order of poetry and mathematics in the midst of a primeval "anti-Eden" where nature "obliterates you". But when three girls and a teacher vanish on an outing at Hanging Rock (formed by an ancient valcanic eruption), the "eternal fire" that lurks beneath the surface of Australia blazes up, inching towards her bit by psychologlcally remorseless bit.

Multiple roles for the other members of the cast posed significant challenges, to which they were most definitely equal.

Katie-Anne Campbell was eminently believable as Michael, a young Englishman fresh off the boat who sets out to investigate the disappearances, but succumbs in his turn to the disofientation that seemed to overtake the vanished party. Tina Shinkwin's first Criterion outing, as both picnicker Edith and, later, the orphan Sara, showed promise. Sara's pitiful mental disintegration in the picnic's aftermath was a perfect mirror to that of her bullying nemesis Mrs Appleyard.

Eerie outback wildlife sound effects, and P.J. Harvey's mesmeric music, added to the sense that spelling and algebra were ultimately likely to be of little use against this antediluvian backdrop puncturing the increasingly thin-seeming veneer of civilisation. With the mystery unresolved, things are not under our control, and we are not ourselves.

Mrs Appleyard's final exhortation to the audience, sprinting 'towards the abyss - as we all should" - seemed a perfectly credible option, in the circumstances.