By Zachary Sheridan
Directed by Stuart Halusz
Black Swan State Theatre Company
Lest We Forget.
The Lighthouse Girl is a well-produced play with heart. The WWI story centres on Fay (Daisy Coyle), the story’s beacon, who lives an isolated life with her lighthouse keeper father upon Breaksea Island down Albany way. Fay, by way of semaphore and other modes of communication, translates messages from soldiers on boats off the coast and relays their letters to loved ones across the continent before they head to war – that was a tricky sentence to get out. It is through this that Fay meets a friend, Charlie (Giuseppe Rotondella), who, along with his mate Jim (Will McNeill), have enlisted to the Light Horse Brigade. The narrative, based on two books from Diane Wolfer, tracks their respective but connecting tales, reminding the audience of the ANZAC legend and the way in which ‘beneath the machinations of a few major players’ are ‘vulnerable individuals who become collateral damage,’ as playwright Hellie Turner puts it.
McNeill and Rotondella’s performances steal the show, their palpable chemistry probably a product of their time at WAAPA together. Pacy, witty, and sincere, The Lighthouse Girl is a super start for the pair post graduation. Also terrific is Nick Maclaine’s cameo as Frank, his twostep with Coyle providing a highlight.
However, what really makes the production spark is the cleverly crafted set. Lawrie Cullen-Tait’s dynamic work comprises rock, bleached furniture, and fence posts that double as crosses – all coastly-coloured, while diamond-shaped flats at the back act as windows. Brett Smith’s sound design is awesome, the clip-clop of horses early on rolling into a plucky guitar that threads its way feelingly through the performance. While Joe Lui’s lighting and Lynn Ferguson’s costuming provide the perfect final components. Lui’s creation of shadows is meaningful, while Ferguson’s capturing of an era is on point.
I admit to never having read the book, but it’s worth noting that technically the story does not succeed the Bechdel test – failing to ever have two women interact and speak about something other than men. Black Swan’s representation of women recently has been disappointing, from the disaster that was Tartuffe, to this production whose lead, while played by Coyle, seemingly turned out to be more of a love interest than anything else. Likewise, Jim’s sister played by Alex Malone – the only other female in a cast of seven – was a mere avenue by which to tell Jim’s story. (BTW, Malone was terrific – both in this and the other production I saw her in during Fringe, Lucidity). If we are going to tell these stories, we shouldn’t be neglectful. What of the nurses off to war who were briefly mentioned? What of their story?
I also can’t help but question – being the vegan that I am – the “quirkiness” of stories that convey love for animals, for horses, for Jacko the donkey, and the Joey aboard the ship, while protagonists simultaneously feast on rabbit stew in leather boots. It’s weird to me – but I acknowledge many others would not share this opinion.
Without losing sight of its intent, The Lighthouse Girl is also about honouring those who gave their life in order so that we may live. It is an extremely worthwhile pursuit of remembrance. Nevertheless, for a conversation provoker, I wonder whether the state theatre should look to more contemporary stories for one of its main stages. After all, the world is overwhelmed with crises currently. (Also, as a side note we must be wary that any old story can find a way to be relevant to today’s audiences with the right wording). And, if the aim is to remember, there are other theatrical ways to do so. (I reference The National Theatre of Scotland’s We’re Here Beacher We’re Here which saw ‘some 1400 voluntary participants dressed in First World War uniform appear unexpectedly in locations across the UK’ to commemorate the Battle of the Somme).
Having said all of this, The Lighthouse Girl remains a very solid work with many points of interest. Coyle brings stage presence in her Black Swan debut, Benj D’Addario as Robert is sturdy, and Murray Dowsett as Joe is lively and engaging. The best thing about the show is that it’s Western Australian made for Western Australian audiences. Perhaps we can see the work as a welcome stepping stone into uncovering more stories of what makes us us.