Children of the Black Skirt

‘Children of the Black Skirt’ is a haunting play for teenagers, written by young playwright, Angela Betzien. It was then developed by the company that she co-founded, Real TV. On winning the Queensland Theatre Company’s Young Playwright’s Award three years in succession, the Queensland Arts Council went on to produce her plays for presentation in schools.

Betzien also received a Drama Victoria Award for Best Production. In 2007, she gained the Richard Wherrett Award for excellence in playwriting; because of her amazing ability to write complex stories, a Patrick White playwright scholarship came her way. She is now university lecturer.

This poignant play by the Murdoch students can be seen at the Nexus Theatre (near car park 3), Murdoch University, South Street, Murdoch nightly until 25th October. The 80-minute performances commence at 7.00 pm.

The set is remote woodland and an old orphanage, with a shower, boiler room and dormitory. The building is tall with external water pipes, and large, wooden window frames. The appearance is that of a miserable, unwelcoming dwelling. Good work by designers Alison Snell, Andrea Solymos and Breanna Morgan.

       Children wandering through a forest come across an old orphanage, and the ghosts of the children who lived there tell their tales.

      Another nameless new girl (Samantha Larke) arrives at the railway station, suitcase in hand. Young Rosie (Chelsea Pullen) takes her to the children’s home. The young girl’s belongings are taken from her and thrown into the furnace. She is sent for a shower, and then put into a large dormitory along with a dozen others and old ghosts. New One is consoled by Old One (Lillybelle Walton) before being inspected by the matron. The matron is symbolised by an impersonal mannequin, dressed in widow’s weeds, whose puppet arms and head are moved by sticks (operator Nick Morrant). She has most of the ‘Black Skirt’ gentry and officials tied to her apron strings and under her control, not least Mr Horrocks, the school inspector (Jordan Baynes) who lives under her skirt.

       In London, young John (Alex McKell) is caught pickpocketing a gentleman (Peter Evans) and is transported to Australia for 7 years hard, convict labour by the local magistrate (Ryan Partridge).      

       Meanwhile in Scotland, young Lizzie (Jess Serio) who has been babysitting dropped the baby and so she is taken from her brother, Hamish (Kieran Renouf) and mother (Amanda Ferguson), and put in care. Likewise, Iris (Sara McIntosh) and her friend Tom (Jonathan Maddocks) are separated.

       The miserable supervisor at the home (Jess Patrick) makes the young children, Ruby and her friend (Georgia Baker, Kathryn Vincent) work hard scrubbing the floor, whilst Lucy (Stephanie Fitz-Henry), Maggie (Amelia Dee) and the Baby (Chloe Laffar) continue to live in misery.

Director Dr David Moody has generously engaged three others to assist him, and allowed the cast plenty of input. The assistant directors include Anna Brockway, who has worked with WA’s well-respected group ‘Class Act’ for some time, along with students Kate Willoughby and Rebecca Thompson. The result is amazing.

The movement and choreography of the large cast is exiting and effective. The atmosphere of the movement helps build the tension and tragedy. The cast were well tuned in to the theme and worked hard to give their best. The script moves through the many issues over the years from about 1860 to 1960. It covers all kinds of child abuse, stolen generations – both black and white, and the misery of children’s homes is laid bare.

With clever script writing, Betzien paints a lucid picture but with a brief piece of humour inserted it immediately lightens the scene. The overall effect is that of interest, sympathy and anger at what went on, but the playwright has avoided making the audience feel too despondent. Very clever writing perfectly interpreted by the directors. The audience are left to build their own picture of the situation from the ingenious symbolism.

Matt Pashley’s lighting design was exciting and outstanding. The furnace effect, coupled with the quality sound effects (Katie Southwell, Luke Gratton and Melissa Da Silva) and smoke machine (stage managed by Yukiko Kinjo, Brianna Lea) produced the desired effect of confronting horror on the audience. The final touches of costume and style are co-ordinated by Cassee Lazic, with the whole production being overseen by Tim Brain.

Dean Lovatt’s job of selling this dark play should be an easy one, as the whole production, rich script, direction, pace and interest is held throughout. A quality show at a sensible price.