Premiering in Sydney in 2008, The Hatpin is an Australian musical with lyrics by James Millar and music by Peter Rutherford. It tells a very dark tale in Australia’s history of ‘child care’, while highlighting the bonds of friendship and motherhood. UMMTA is to be commended for staging this ‘needs-to-be-seen-more-often’ work and for bringing an engaging production to its audiences.
In his directorial debut, Jordan Peters has done a wonderful job in bringing to life the drama of 1892 Sydney. Of particular note was his blocking and arrangement of the ensemble: it was imaginative, slightly off balance, and original – all of which served the narrative of the show very well. There were one or two sight line issues, where the ensemble positioning blocked the view the audience had of the principal cast action – no doubt this is something from which Peters will learn. Direction of the principal cast serviced the needs of the show. One standout moment was the staging of “Gathering Sirens”: the striking simplicity of the women being interviewed in their doorways aided the coldness which Amber encountered in her search for answers.
While they initially had a few tuning problems, the orchestra were capably led by CJ Johnson. As musical director, Johnson’s hard work with the cast of The Hatpin was evidenced in the tight harmonies produced by the ensemble.
Eleanor Davey gave moving performance in the central role of Amber Murray. Vocally, she was very strong and showed great musical sensitivity. It would be lovely to see Davey bring more light and shade to the character, in order that her moments of desperation bring a different energy than the periods of ongoing anxiety.
An audience favourite, Emma Gordon-Smith shone in the role of down-to-earth Harriet Piper. Gordon-Smith’s sense of humour came through to give her great comic moments. Her rendition “Bad Fruit” brought snickers of familiarity from the audience. By way of contrast, her performance of “Something like being a mother” had great depth of feeling, and her voice never faltered throughout.
Thomas Kitt-Thompson and Grace Haslinghouse were great foil for each other in the roles of Charles and Agatha Makin. Kitt-Thompson brought us a man who was stiff, reserved, and trapped by his choices. Haslinghouse gave Agatha Makin a delicious false sense of caring, all the while scared of being found out. As Clara Makin, Bella Wiemers brought an uneasy presence to proceedings: the audience could sense that Clara was someone with a secret, one she was not at ease in keeping. Wiemers’ performance of the title track was nuanced and unnerving, just as it ought to be.
The standout performance of the evening belongs to the trio of unwed mothers – Natalie Montalto, Melanie O’Brien, and Raphael Cleeve Gerkens. As they sang “Gathering Sirens”, at times they sounded as one voice, so good was the blend of their voices and the tightness of their harmonies. Dramatically, they made us feel ashamed of the society that had put them into the position in which they found themselves. Brava, ladies.
The production was prey to some sound problems – rustling microphones, body mics not quite coping with a couple of shrill outbursts in dialogue. That said, at no time was the orchestra too loud: the singers on stage were always audible, thanks to good sound balance. There were moments where the actors were unintelligible due to the speed with which the lines were being delivered, but that is for the director to solve.
The colour palette of 1892 should be washed out and dark, and the lighting design certainly created this atmosphere. On occasion, some of the actors missed their marks and found themselves not standing in the light. However, it must be questioned if this was a lighting flaw or a directorial choice. For example, at one of the key dramatic moments (the arrest of the Makin family), the faces of Charles and Agatha Makin were in the dark. This is such a critical scene, so we should be able to see the expressions and emotions of the characters.
Set design was an open stage with some rostra, and the addition of some furniture was used to suggest each scene. This approach was highly effective, though there were a couple of scene changes which could have been smoother and faster. Good use of projected artist images of Sydney during the overture set the tone for a dark and grubby story. The tree and its over-hanging branch added to feel of being outside, but from the halfway point in the auditorium, it marred the view of the projected images.
Costuming matched the muted colour palette of the set and lighting. On the whole, the pieces were suited to the period and shaped characters well. A couple of the mens’ suits were too modern in appearance and pulled focus from what was a well put together wardrobe.
The Hatpin is a rarely performed piece of Australian theatre, and UMMTA have created a production which does great credit to the work. The hard working cast give the audience what it wants at any night out at the theatre – strong singng, tight movement, and the drama of a story to pull you in and hold you with them in the dark.
UMMTA’s season continues tonight, Wednesday September 21st, and runs through to Saturday September 24th. Tickets are available from http://chook.as/ummta/hatpin