‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ is a pseudo-historical, Gothic story written by Joan Lindsay, a playwright and painter who was born Joan à Beckett Weigall in St Kilda East in 1896. With a Judge for a father, and a maternal grandfather who was Governor of Tasmania, she was certainly born with a silver spoon in her mouth. On marrying Sir Daryl Lindsay, Joan became Lady Lindsay whilst still in her twenties. Being childless at her death, her home, along with all of her and her husband’s paintings were presented to the National Trust. There are still nine of Lindsay’s written works unpublished.

This fresh adaptation by Laura Annawyn Shamas is a joy to watch. There is logic and tension which was lacking in the original lugubrious, ethereal film and book. For years audiences have left theatres asking, ‘what was all that about?’ So, what did happen? This magnificent production laid out facts that allowed the audience to go away mull over; then ask themselves, could this have possibly happened?

Incredibly, she was in her seventies before this play was published in 1967. Although the story reads as a true event, it is completely fictional, only the geological structure Hanging Rock is true. The final crucial and resolving chapter of the book was posthumously published in 1987. This final link was called the ‘The Secret of Hanging Rock’.

This highly respected, but extremely difficult play to stage, was produced and presented by the Stray Cats Theatre Company in conjunction with the Mandurah Entertainment Centre from 29th July until Saturday 31st July. The two and a half hour performances in the Fishtrap Theatre, were nightly at 7.30 pm, with a Saturday matinée at 2.00 pm.

The Scene:           Valentine’s Day 1900. Hanging Rock, a mamelon – a plugged, extinct volcano at Newham in Victoria. Due to the fame, this rock 70 kms north-west of Melbourne, now has its own postcode, 139 South Rock Road, Woodend VIC 3442.

                                The internal scenes are in the aristocratic girls’ boarding school – Appleyard College.

The Set: Designed by Karen Francis and Bronwyn White the effect is stunning. The pink boulders fill the whole stage from side to side, and up to the lighting rig. Most of the action takes place at auditorium floor level on the apron up to the tiered seating. A truly memorable set.

Set construction:              An amazing piece of work by Mal Thompson and Peter Francis. The breath-taking construction is solid and most convincing. It even has trees growing out of many crevasses.

Properties:          Sheryl Gale and the cast had to find crockery, tables and chairs, an antique bed.

Lighting design and operation:   Karen Francis’ design showed a fine understanding in the use of colour for creating atmosphere. There was a multifaceted lighting cue list for technician Nicholas Morant, who managed to get the subtle changes perfectly. The minimal use of a smoke machine combined with the lighting, hinted at the warm evening haze.

Soundscape:      The complex mix of the wind blowing around the rocks, the eerie echoes and creepy bush noises showed Karen Francis at her best. The unnerving sounds had the audience on the edge of their seats in anticipation.

Stage manager:                Sky Kettle had an exceptionally well organised crew (recruited from the cast), who at one stage removed a chair, double bed, bedside table, and lamp and then moved in a garden table, two chairs, drinking glasses and a tea set – all in 11 seconds. Incredible to watch. This allowed the tension that had been built up, to continue faultlessly. Backstage team included Mattias Zver, Kieran Hall, Robbie Fieldwick, Mary Castle and Adam Thomas – take an extra bow.

The sepia poster and programme, with Gothic design and striking photography were by Kristie Hennessey, with the fine production photography by Gemma Little.

It is St Valentine’s Day 1900, and in the grounds of Appleyard College four senior schoolgirls have gathered for a school trip. They are best friends, Miranda (Teaghan Lowry), Rosamund (Gemma Lever), Irma Leopold (Rhiannon Francis) and Marion (Dana Brennan). When a chubby girl Edith (Ella Thompson) tries to join in, she is humiliated by them. The supercilious, mercenary owner of the school is Mrs Appleyard (Jessie Watson – what a tyrant), an old maid that love has passed by, has arranged for the groomsman, Ben Hussey (Matthias Zver) to take the school charabanc to nearby Hanging Rock.

Soon a flock of around twenty students pile into the rustic vehicle. The mathematics teacher, Miss McCraw (Georgia Turner) is sent with them to supervise. A thirteen yrs. old orphan, whose guardian has not paid her fees yet, Sara Waybourne (Ava Pasch – you could feel her suffering) is left behind. She is consoled by the caring French mistress, Mademoiselle De Poitiers (Diana Joan, excellent French accent).

The motherly school cook (Sheryl Gale) and her maid, Minnie (Mary Castle) wave as the girls set off. The headmistress shares a stiff drink, one of the day’s many, with Miss Dora Lumley (Meg Willis) a new teaching tyrant whose father, Mr Reg Lumley (Kieran Hall) found her the job.

When the group arrive at the rocks, nearby is a group is from the neighbouring estate. There is The Hon. Michael Fitzhubert (Braeden Geuer), Mrs Fitzhubert (Amy Honor Elliott) and Albert (Alex White) their coachman and school handyman. After their bumpy ride (great effect), the girls Blanche (Zoe Hubbard), Kate (Emily Burton), Michelle (Sommer Hester), Flora (Keely Hockley), Lilly (Chelsea Hobson), Harriet (Abby Tamplin), Florence (Georgia Higgs), Mabel (Xanthe Turner), Evelyn (Azalia Turner) and Vera (Sienna Gardyne) form small groups to picnic and then have a quick nap before their return journey.

Adventurous Miranda and her schoolfriends, Edith, Irma, and Marion decide to climb the monolith. A strange sound echoes around the rocks and as though hypnotised, Miss McCraw and the girls strip to their underwear, then set off up the rocks. Slow Edith loses sight of them and rushes down the hill shouting that they have all vanished. The other schoolchildren search but no one is found. Another groomsman, Tom (Robbie Fieldwick) is sent to see what has happened. He takes Colonel Fitzhubert (Lachlan McNeil) to help with the search. At the rocks the young Colonel is injured and Irma is found almost dead.

The two injured people are taken back to the school. Constable Bumpher (Azza Gee) gathers the facts of the incident from the girls, as Mrs Bumpher (Morgan Randall) his wife, employs her nursing skills until Doctor McKenzie (Aidan Thomas) arrives.

Ghosts appear. Will an answer be found? Will the missing girls be located?

Linda Lowry’s striking costumes were plain Gothic in style – but in white (rather than black) cotton muslin, finished with pastel silk sashes. Each girl had a straw boater. Mademoiselle De Poitier had a voluminous cream lace dress, with a matching open-weave jacket and a parasol. The teachers wore waistcoats, with the headmistress wearing a laced leather, semi-punk basque over her white blouse.

Director Karen Francis built a palpable suspense, which was sadly lacking in some other productions – especially the film. Karen has blown the budget on this show, but in doing so she has given a huge chance for the Adapt Performance students to have not simply walk-on parts but become involved in creating the essential pandemonium and terrifying atmosphere. The show was fast paced which worked so much better than the slow gliding style usually employed. Almost every actor had a couple of important lines to deliver, with even the youngest doing well. The main characters gave powerful performances, delivering their lines clearly and without headsets to the rear row of the seating.

Be very proud. A fabulous fresh interpretation of this tired novel by a first class troupe.