This isn’t the first outing of Alana Valentine’s play, Parramatta Girls. But it’s a worthy revival and a very strong production, from director Annette Rowlinson, albeit of an over-written play. This is a history we should all know, and Valentine has based her work on real testimonies, from former inmates.
Yes, inmates is the right word for those that endured any length of time at the notorious PGH, or Parramatta Girls’ Home (or one of the many other euphemistic names it went by, over the years, such as Girls’ Industrial School and Girls’ Training School). Inmates, because these young women, charged with ‘crimes’ like neglect, not because they were neglectful, but neglected, were systematically abused, in practically every sense of the term. This was a place in which there was far greater equality between black and white than in the outside world: here, there was only, as a line in the play says, black-and-blue.
Supported by Casey Moon-Watton’s suitably depressing lighting, Adam Chantler’s set strikes just the right dingy note in its bleakly foreboding evocation of an institutional building, while George Cartledge’s acoustic guitar-based compositions bring a gentle, soothing aesthetic, reflective of the healing journey of this representative group of women, of varying ages, backgrounds, temperaments and experiences. It wafts in every now and then, like a summer breeze.
Di Adams, Elaine Crombie, Amanda Marsden, Abi Rayment, Kylie Coolwell, Christine Greenough, Kym Parrish and Sandy Velini are the women. In their best moments, they really are the women they portray; though there are other moments that are just a little too ‘conceived’, thought-through, premeditated, rehearsed and honed, such that the honesty, spontaneity, life and intensity are sucked right out.
It’s an uneven journey but, on the whole, a deeply satisfying one, if one that could’ve been shorter: for mine, Valentine seems to, in a sense, prevaricate, drawing large circles around the inescapable horrors of the true-to-life setting. And rather than stay true to the testimonials she’s drawn upon, she’s sought to make a drama out of it, which, to my mind, is an intrinsic error, since the drama is already present. The danger, therefore, is that the superimposed drama dilutes the impact of the very truth she’s set out to reveal. In other words, staying close to documentary theatre, with just enough poetic licence to humidify that otherwise dry form, would’ve been a wiser course, resulting in a tougher, more challenging (for actors and audience) and shorter, punchier work.
If Valentine is to be congratulated for anything, it’s for bringing this important, ‘lest we forget’ historical episode (a tragically long one) to new generations, while reminding older ones of the ‘there but for the grace of God’ ordeal so many of their peers were forced to endure. The play itself isn’t nearly as much of a triumph as the potential for us to take lessons from the story on which it’s based. It’s a little too busy being politically correct and enobling the playwright and just isn’t made of the steely stuff it might’ve been.
But it’s a strong production, if not the gutsiest reading possible.
The details: Parramatta Girls is at New Theatre until June 11. Tickets through MCA-TIX.