The Lighthouse Girl
Review by Susie Conte
A light flashing across the diamond leadlight backdrop. The sound of a whale breaching. A mournful tune sung by the cast. The pyramids at daybreak. The smell of sea water in the air.
This show is an organic, textured production, bringing the landscape into the lives of these ordinary people. A stylized stage set, designed by Lawrie Cullen-Tait, dominated by a rock formation served to introduce us to the world of Fay Howe. From the rocky landscapes of Albany to the pyramids at Giza, to the landings at Gallipoli, the set serves to take us through this ever changing environment. Based on a true story, The Lighthouse Girl tells the story of Fay, daughter of the lighthouse keeper on Breaksea Island, off the Albany Coast. Fay is lonely and mourning the death of her mother, and on the cusp of womanhood. It is 1914. War breaks out and she is suddenly a front-seat witness to the gathering of the convoy of the Anzac troops on their way to the theatre of war. An expert in semaphore and Morse code, she is able to do her part by communicating with the soldiers on the ships and sending messages on to their loved ones.
A long process was set in place in 2015 with a Rio Tinto commission of Dianne Wolfer’s novels The Lighthouse Girl and The Lighthorse Boy. Playwright Hellie Turner, with dramaturgy by Polly Low, intertwines the novels and creates a world of love and war. In the notes in the programme, Turner describes the play as a “heart-felt West Australian story which…speaks the universal truth of what it is to be humanly small in the face of gargantuan conflict.” These sentiments still reign today in the light of current global politics and conflict.
In the play, the relationships of the family on the island are wonderfully rounded – Daisy Coyle brings a sweetness and innocence to the role of Fay; the gentle, jocular Joe (Murray Dowsett) and the superb Benj d’Addario as Fay’s father Robert all make a family unit that is believable and touching. D’Addario is the absolute standout here, quiet and measured with a sincere pathos that is palpable, while Dowsett as Joe is loving and tender and gets some of the best lines. The setup of their lives before war is well written; their daily adventures are the joys of watching penguins hatch and whales breach, and learning how to make custard. The war is a catalyst not just for the country but for the family to change and adapt.
Juxtaposed with this story is the story of Jim (Will McNeill) and Charlie (Giuseppe Rotondella), cocksure and determined to enlist in the Light Horse Brigade for an adventure. Their assurances that they “will be home by Christmas” strikes a chord with the audience because we well know what hell awaits them. Charlie has no family and, via semaphore, asks to be able to write to Fay so he has someone to come home to. McNeill and Rotondella are easy with each other and you can see their friendship writ large on the stage. They are strong and touching, and at turns very funny in these roles, and the inevitable demise is painful to see. McNeill’s monologue at the end had me in tears. Nick Maclaine does a remarkable amount for such a small role, and Alex Malone as Jim’s sister rounds out a stellar cast, all Western Australian actors.
This show is respectful of its origins and its subject matter, and what comes out is a sweet and touching production directed with care by Stuart Halusz. The longest journey to war in history by the largest convoy of soldiers ever assembled began in one of the most isolated places in the world, Breaksea Island off Albany. And the last ‘voice’ they heard was Fay’s as she semaphored messages to them. Fay only wanted to do ‘her bit’ and her bit was wonderful.
The Lighthouse Girl runs until May 14 at the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre of WA. For tickets and more information, visit the Black Swan website here.