The stage of Roslyn Packer Theatre is transformed into the working-class world of Ruth Park’s iconic The Harp In The South trilogy. Adapted by Kate Mulvany as a two-part play and directed by Kip Williams, the world premiere of The Harp In The South is truly an epic for all involved with a run time of over six hours and a stellar cast of 18 actors weaving in and out of a staggering 93 roles.
Part One starts off joyously hopeful in 1920s Trafalga where Margaret Kilker (Rose Riley) and Hugh Darcy (Ben O’Toole) meet and fall in love. David Fleischer (set designer), Renee Mulder (costume designer), and Nigel Poulton (movement and fight director) are to be particularly commended for the theatricality of a lively fairground scene brought to life on a revolving floor.
Margaret (now Anita Hegh) and Hugh (now Jack Finsterer) move to Surry Hills in search of greener pastures but find only a bleak and unforgiving slum that takes their first-born son, Thady (Joel Bishop and Jack Ruwald), as its price. Hegh is stunning in her portrayal of a grieving mother in denial while Margaret’s mother, Eny (the scene-stealing Heather Mitchell) provides the audience with much needed comic relief.
Part Two, much like the fruit in the title of the book it adapts – Poor Man’s Orange – is not quite as ready for consumption with the narrative arc feeling too rushed as the play moves forward in time. Guy Simon as Roie’s partner, Charlie, makes the most of a character that does not feel fully formed while other thespians like Tara Morice and Lucia Mastrantone shine in supporting roles that keep the narrative rippling forward.
The Harp In The South is compellingly dark – Mulvany does not flinch from the stark realities of Surry Hills in the 1950s, perfectly encapsulating the powerlessness of the poor, the female and the non-white. It is primarily through the experiences of Roie Darcy (the lovely and almost ethereal Rose Riley) and Dolour Darcy (Contessa Treffone in a star-making turn) that the audience sees children taken into Surry Hills and spat out as adults too early, harshly beaten down by the knowledge of what it is to be helpless and trapped without reprieve.
While the characters acknowledge the grim nature of their living circumstances – mirrored by the set growing darker and sparser with each new act – the sense of community is truly what gives the play its heart, with Delie Stock (Helen Thompson), the madam of the local brothel, taking effective charge of this despite the disapproval of the Church. As the play reminds us, “there’s bad and there’s awful but there’s always good, promise.”
Until Oct 6. Roslyn Packer Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay. $73-$108+b.f. Tickets & Info: www.sydneytheatre.com.au
Reviewed by Emily Shen.