Alana Valentine’s ‘Parramatta Girls’ is a play that explores a theatricalised version of truth of the experiences of former inmates of Girls Training School (GTS), Parramatta and the destructive treatment of children in institutional care in Australian history. Valentine points out “It is not documentary. It is not legal evidence. It is not biography or autobiography. It is a play about the nature of memory and the triumph of community” but actually it is more than that. It is a chance for theatre to do what it does best- highlight the human experience, no matter how disturbing, and shine a light on it so that we are witness to a version of events to remind us of our past and our role in it to make us think about the future we’d like to shape.
Director Tanya Goldberg has taken Valentine’s script and given it an outing at the Riverside stage, Parramatta and in some ways it feels like it has come home. Production designer, Tobhiyah Stone Feller, has created an environment of half-torn buildings, like a bomb site, full of shadows, ghosts and debris, much like the women who have returned to the site of their childhood torment. This is further enhanced in Verity Hampson’s lighting, harsh and exposed but allowing places for the light to hide when needed. The set is hindered by just the one clear doorway and it does mean that the action stalls while we wait for cast to enter or exit. In fact, there are times when this production clunks along- the timing out slightly in some of the scenes of conflict between the women and this means tension struggles to build when you most need it.
Goldberg’s choice to play the time shifts of the girls back in their childhood as stylised action and characterisation means that belief is harder to achieve because the action is already heightened and in some ways, surreal, but the bridge between girls and women is handled well for the most part. There is plenty of energy and some of the stories are harrowing in their expression and so the play does keep you engaged, even if it lacks the power of execution.
The cast is an experienced ensemble and captures the diversity of characters as well as actresses. Christine Anu as Coral is the strongest, clearly communicating the toughness and leadership of a woman who has taken the damage inflicted and found a great resilience of strength and perseverance. But there are no weak links in the cast and there is camaraderie amongst the group that transfers well into the stories. They are supportive of each other and although I felt on opening night it hadn’t quite settled into itself yet, there was integrity evident on stage.
I quite liked ‘Parramatta Girls’ but it still had a journey ahead of it to find the powerful audience response it needed to make sure that its intentions were felt strongly by those sitting watching it. But no doubt it will get there and with sold out shows and more added to the season, it has been well-supported and is a worthy play to see.