Sadly, it had been a really long time since I’d seen a good play. In recent months, I have been subjected to pretention, mediocre comedy and less than stellar performances. Luckily, but not surprisingly, the Malthouse and their latest production of the gothic Victorian favourite, Picnic At Hanging Rock restored my faith in the Melbourne theatre scene. No small feat.

Picnic at Hanging Rock was a production that I almost couldn’t fault, save for my bottom-of-the-barrel musings at the bar after the show, where I proposed, “perhaps some of the props were superfluous”. The play was in fact so good, that I have struggled to find anything to write about, perhaps more a reflection on my tendency to relish in cynicism and dissent. Let it be said that by contrast to my default position, this is a glowing review.

In short, the performances were great, the direction was great, and the adaptation was great, as were the costumes, stage, sound and lighting design.

First and foremost, the performances were superb. For me (and my theatre-going buddy) there were two clear standouts that we could not take our collective eyes off, Nikki Shiels and Elizabeth Nabben. Nabben played with frightening, heightened realism, the complex and indeed tyrannical, Headmistress Appleyard. Having attended a private Catholic girl’s school myself during my formative years, I guess you could say that I could connect with the material. Despite the almost histrionic comedy that Nabben employed with expertise, the character was incredibly nuanced and reflected (among other things) the British dissatisfaction with the harshness and unforgiving nature of the Australian landscape.

One of the more impressive achievements of the play was that the Picnic creative team, headed by director, Matthew Lutton really captured the curiosity and confusion of adolescence and the vulnerability and burgeoning sexuality of the teenage years. The mystery that surrounded the missing student, Miranda was particularly well constructed. The revered angelic-like character hung over the play much like the rock, creating intrigue and unrest.

In addition to the performances, the play was heightened by the haunting sound design, kudos to J. David Franzke and the stunning and poignant lighting by Paul Jackson. While you could hang your hat on the drama of the original story written by Joan Lindsay, it was the adaptation for the stage from the formidable talent of Tom Wright that made this show sing.

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One final musing, it is so nice to see not just Australian but decidedly Victorian content explored on stage. Hearing the familiar Victorian places such as Woodend, Ballarat and streets in the CBD always brings a knowing smile to my face as I revel in our stories told on the stage, even in a pre-Federation setting.

For this Melbourne audience, the sad fact is that Picnic at Hanging Rock at the Malthouse is only scheduled to run for a little over a week. Further, my recommendations to friends and work colleagues to go and see it “immediately, if not sooner” resulted in disappointment with the clear online message: SOLD OUT.

No surprises here and, good for them.

With my run of bad theatre, I secretly knew I would be in safe hands at The Malthouse and not only was I not disappointed on the opening night of this (for want of a better word) cracker, I was reminded where my favourite place to see a play is. Nestled in the creative hub that is Southbank, The Malthouse continues to deliver great theatre, not to mention provides a pretty generous bar tab on opening night. Shame it was a school night.