We went to see the production of Picnic At Hanging Rock at South London Theatre. There is one more performance tomorrow night. Mask-wearing was not enforced but many audience members followed it.

The performance is on a sparsely-arranged set. There is little in the way of props apart from the drinks cabinet off to one side, used in scenes in the office of the school principal. The 5 female cast play all the roles, including the male characters.

The film of Picnic Of Hanging Rock was quite a phenomenon in the late 70s/early 80s. The BBC showed it quite a few times, and the “mystery” was taken as seriously as the Bermuda Triangle. My dad read the original book and claimed that the whole business was unsolvable because the local police had bungled the investigation – clearly, he had been taken in by Joan Lindsay’s style, in what we are now clear in understanding to be a work of fiction.

This stage version has the 5 females who set out on the trip to Hanging Rock narrating the key events in long sections at start and finish. There is a prologue in which Australia is described as an uneasy monument over the top of a turbulent geology – using the images of the rock and its volcanic origin as a metaphor for the nation created by colonialism. “Anti-Eden” is an expression used in this monologue. The atmosphere of the journey is built up with the red backdrop lighting and a low droning soundtrack. Scene changes are rapid and there is a very effective scream at the recovery of Irma.

Although it is a long time since I saw the film (I haven’t seen the later TV adaptation) this version tracks the main narrative as I remember. There is a final climax which is not quite the “missing last chapter” as we now know it but does round off the story with a final break in the fabric of reality. The performers are excellent. I recommend you get to see it tomorrow night if you can.

One other fascinating aspect of the film is that it featured an earlier appearance by Vivean Gray, who played Mrs Mangel in Neighbours. What I always remember about her was the rather creepy portrait Helen Daniels painted of her, which she hated until an art critic declared it was a masterpiece that represented a deep truth about Australia. I can’t help feeling that was all a very arch in-joke about her role in the film, though it was in the mid 90s that she was put on a postage stamp for her performance.

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