By Sue-Anne Hess
To an impressionable young woman of 19th Century England, the far shores of Botany Bay must have seemed like another world. Once departed, it was assumed that one would never see the faces of home again. Such was the opportunity and the terror that faced young free-settler women who travelled for months to begin a new life in the Australian colony. She would need courage, resilience, and a great sense of humour. Voyage, a new Australian folk production by The Good Girl Song Project, takes us on such an adventure, which is not (we discover,) without its’ dangers.
The venue, 45 Downstairs, is perfectly suited to this kind of intimate performance. As one descends three flights of wooden stairs, it’s not dissimilar to sinking into the bow of a wooden sailing ship. It is quite a plain room – wooden floors and brickwork walls, with a smattering of props on the floor. Three musicians take their place stage right and remain there for the duration of the show. The mood is pensive, and sombre, like the story about to be told.
Two women, Carly Ellis, and Penny Larkins, make up the entire cast of 13 characters, each sharing a different perspective on the experience of the voyage. These women’s’ performances are incredibly strong, (both in acting and voice) and the argument as to who was the better singer/actor may never be satisfactorily resolved. Carly Ellis is the “good girl”, gentle and devout, seeking a better life. Her counterpart, Penny Larkins, plays the role of Elizabeth Wade, the bawdy, courageous and touchingly vulnerable friend you always wish you’d had. The “mateship” between these two characters is the foundation up which the show rests, and these two diverse actresses deliver it with an authenticity which is surprisingly moving. Transitions between characters is impressively smooth, and the use of minor props (a necklace, a suitcase, a hat, etc) is effective.
Among all the stories told and songs performed, the highlight of the show was a number where the two women played the parts of Aussie men. As they contemplate the arrival of the ship, anticipating a “cure for their loneliness”, there is a darkness about the fate that belies these women, and it is clear that they are possessions for the taking. Even the simplest of gestures, like rolling a cigarette, seems menacing and cold. It is suspenseful, intense, and slightly brilliant.
Overall, the show was incredibly entertaining, and equally thought-provoking. However, there were some minor issues with the sound. While the acoustic approach created a sense of simplicity, it was difficult at times to hear the lyrics being sung, depending on the direction the singer faced. Similarly, the entry medley was largely drowned out by the chattering of an enthusiastic audience. While both women were clearly accomplished singers, each had moments when they seemed to be straining to project either emotion, or volume, or both.
There was also some confusion around the story, and the message. The show seemed almost more like a series of vignettes than a single storyline, yet none of these “mini-stories” was resolved. There seemed to be too many characters and too little time, and it was not clear what the show was trying to say. It would have been great to learn what became of these two friends over the years. For a show that was so incredibly-well researched and presented, it would do well to include an intermission (90 minutes is tough in those little seats,) and build more into fewer characters.
Finally, a comment on the music. Kylie Morrigan, Penelope Swales and Helen Begley (Writer) performed a beautifully soulful soundtrack that lifted and enhanced the emotion of every scene. It was clever and subtle, but in this viewer’s opinion, too understated. In the presence of such exceptional musical ability, it would have been great to simply sit back and listen, from time to time.
There was a lot to like about Voyage, including the strong spirit of sisterhood, musicianship, and the fresh re-telling of this portion of Australia’s history. It is currently a good show, but with some slight tweaks and adjustments, it has the potential to be unforgettable.