Since its critically acclaimed debut in a production by Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre in 2014, Girl Asleep has become an international success story. Last year, it was realised for the screen and took out the Audience Award for Most Popular Feature at the Adelaide Film Festival. Since then, the film version has gone on to receive, among other accolades, seven nominations at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards and the Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival.
Needless to say, Windmill Theatre’s Girl Asleep (refined since its initial stage outing) arrives at Belvoir surrounded by significant expectation. Written by Matthew Whittet (Seventeen, Cinderella, Old Man) and directed by Windmill’s artistic director Rosemary Myers, it’s a piece that sets out to examine the enormity of the challenges of adolescence via a quirky and fantastical narrative.
Set in 1970s Australia, Girl Asleep tells the story of Greta Driscoll (Ellen Steele), an awkward and wide-eyed teenager on the eve of her 15th birthday. She’s terrified at the prospect of growing up – and all that that entails – and armed only with a social circle limited to the spirited but similarly self-conscious Elliott (Dylan Young). Her aloof older sister, Genevieve (Sheridan Harbridge), is little help in Greta’s efforts to cope with her evolving world.
Greta’s parents (played by Whittet himself and Amber McMahon) decide to throw her a party to celebrate her birthday and, without their daughter’s knowledge, invite her entire school year group to attend. The night arrives and, as the evening unfolds, Greta finds herself in an alternate reality of her subconscious that (much in the vein of L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy) sees her taken on a journey on which she encounters the key figures of her ‘real’ existence appearing in various guises. It’s an illuminating experience that forces Greta to confront her deepest fears and ‘awaken’ to the world she will face as she navigates the next chapter in her life.
Girl asleep has a solid premise and its key themes will resonate with Greta’s contemporaries (not just young females, but males too), as well as all who’ve come out the other side of the challenging adolescent years. Each of Whittet’s characters is recognisable and humour has been effectively incorporated into their interactions throughout. But while the text never loses sight of its overarching intentions, it’s questionable whether there’s room for a deeper exploration of the difficulties commonplace in teenage life. Ultimately, the text successfully champions the importance of moving forward, but perhaps further exposition of the fears faced at this crucial time would work to enhance the narrative’s overall impact, if the balance was gentle enough not to interfere with the show’s off-beat tone.
Across the board, the performances are strong. Whittet and McMahon reprise the roles they’ve now played both on stage and screen. They completely convince as Greta’s well-meaning parents, struggling to understand each of their growing daughters at their different stages of development. Harbridge has wonderfully natural comedic timing and it lends itself to her performance as the seemingly unsympathetic Genevieve.
In the central role, Steele ensures Greta’s awkwardness and absolute naivety are apparent from the outset. As audience members, we see clearly in her characterisation a young girl content to remain in her own unadulterated world and terrified of what she’ll face as she leaves it behind. And as Elliott, Young adds humour and gives us a character who’s enormously likeable and sympathetic.
Jonathon Oxlade’s set creates an authentic-feeling family home of 1970s Australia. His design of Greta’s bedroom is particularly noteworthy for the fact of the remarkable resemblance it bears to her music box – a compact world to which she can escape at her leisure. The scale of Oxlade’s set makes constructive use of Belvoir’s upstairs theatre space. Additionally, his costuming appropriately evokes the living and subconscious worlds into which audiences are taken.
Richard Vabre thoughtfully uses a variety of gobos and coloured lights to denote Greta’s journey into the looking glass-esque subconscious world. The soundscape also plays a crucial role in Girl Asleep, and Luke Smiles ensures a consistently strong underscoring of action, punctuated by suitable sound effects. Additionally, the show features a range of classic tracks from Donna Summer to Serge Gainsbourg, which will likely appeal to those old enough to remember.
Girl Asleep at Belvoir is an opportunity for audiences to witness this celebrated production, helmed by its original creative team and some of the actors who’ve played an integral role in the history of the piece to date (both in stage and film form). Those with 14 and 15-year-old teenagers should contemplate a trip to Surry Hills with their children in the coming days as a means of reinforcing that the challenges of life ahead are real but far less confronting than their own minds may lead them to believe.
GIRL ASLEEP SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre (25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills)
Dates: Until 24 December
Times: Tuesday & Wednesday 6.30pm, Thursday & Friday 8pm, Saturday 2pm & 8pm, Sunday 5pm
Tickets: Full from $72, Seniors/Industry/Group $62, Concession $49, 30 Down $47, Student Saver $37
Box Office: 02 9699 3444 or belvoir.com.au