A true tale of two ships

20 August 2021

The loss of the Australian light cruiser Sydney II and its crew was one of the great tragedies of Australia at war, and its discovery over 60 years later was a triumph of commitment and perseverance. David Zampatti was moved by both stories as told by Theatre 180.

Sydney II: Lost and Found, Theatre 180 ·
Ace Cinemas, Rockingham, 20 August, 2021 ·

When I got home after the opening night of Sydney II: Lost and Found, the second of Theatre 180’s “cinema theatre” West Australian stories (the first, their stage-and-screening of A.B. Facey’s A Fortunate Life has been an enormous success around regional WA as well as in Perth) I learnt of a great coincidence.

We knew (although I didn’t realise it until my wife told me) one of the central characters in the story, Able Seaman Tom Fisher, the last surviving mariner to serve on the ill-fated Royal Australian Navy ship, HMAS Sydney II.

Tom was the father of a close friend of ours, and died, aged 95, in 2016. He served on the light cruiser in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean when he was only twenty, but was transferred off just before Sydney’s last voyage and fateful encounter with the German raider Kormoran on October 19, 1941 which resulted in the sinking of both ships and the loss of its entire crew of 645 in waters off Shark Bay.

The young sailor who replaced Tom, Allan Rowe, was lost with the Sydney, and Allan’s story, and that of his wife Jessie and their daughter Ellen, is the narrative thread of the tragedy.

Running parallel with the story of the wreck of the Sydney is the attempt to locate its remains, and those of the Kormoran, by volunteers from the Finding Sydney Foundation which raised the necessary $5 million to engage the American shipwreck hunter David Mearns and hire the deep-water sonar vessel SV Geosounder to undertake the search.

Overcoming technical problems and the weather, the search succeeded in locating first the Kormoran and then the Sydney in March 2008. The sea had, finally, given up its secrets.

These are two great stories, wrapped around an immense, and still mysterious, tragedy that continues to leave ripples eighty years on. The playwright Jenny Davis and director Stuart Halusz have fashioned a sad, but often sweet and vivacious, narrative around Allan, Jessie and their family that neatly captures the spirit of the time, especially the stoicism and essential optimism of Australians confronted with the unimaginable perils of war.

Like all true stories it is captive to the rigour of history, so there are no twists and turns, or dramatic tensions in the play – we know who succeeds and who fails, what is lost and what is found, who lives and who dies, but the story is one we should know, and it’s well told here.

Two people dressed in clothing of the 1940s appear to be sitting on the back of a car, a third sits in front and appears to be driving (we can't see the car itself. The pair at the back are a couple; they look happy.
The cast of ‘Sydney II: Lost and Found’ tell a sad but often sweet and vivacious story. Photo: Stewart Thorpe Photography

Theatre 180 has developed and refined its technical capabilities in their second outing in this self-described genre, and the live and filmed action work extremely well on both a narrative and emotional level. Its production team led by designers Ben Collins (sound), and Michael Paget (visuals) use Ace Cinema’s huge screen to great effect and it dovetails exactly with the live action

The cast – Myles Pollard, Morgan Dukes and Tom O’Sullivan (Janet Pettigrew is Ellen Rowe in filmed segments) – take 20 different characters everywhere from Jessie’s family farm in Manjimup to the bridges of the Kormoran and the Sydney, and from the 1940s to the 2000s, with impressive skill.

Pollard and O’Sullivan are well known for their television roles while the effervescent Dukes is a recent WAAPA graduate, and a sense of commitment to the story and its staging is apparent from all of them.

Sydney II: Lost and Found plays in Perth and regional centres for the next two months, culminating in a performance in Geraldton on November 19, the 80th Anniversary of the loss of the Sydney.

That will be an extraordinarily emotional occasion, and I’m sure the play and this production will do it justice.

Sydney II: Lost and Found runs at Ace Cinemas Rockingham until 22 August 2021.

It will then tour to Orana Cinema Albany, 26 August – 1 September
Orana Cinema Busselton 3-12 September
Orana Cinema Kalgoorlie 18-19 September
Ace Cinema Midland 29 October to 3 November
Grand Cinema Warwick 6-10 November
Orana Cinema Geraldton, 13-21 November

David Zampatti’s sister is a member of the board of Theatre 180.

Pictured top is Tom O’Sullivan in ‘Sydney II: Lost and Found. Photo: Stewart Thorpe Photography

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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