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Reviews/Musical Theatre/Perth Festival

Panawathi girl emerges from turbulent time

11 February 2022

Perth Festival’s Panawathi Girl is a polished production that uses music to tell an important story and ignite the heart, writes Barbara Hostalek

Panawathi Girl, Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 9 February 2022 · 

Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company has a tradition of sharing stories of cultural resilience that empower Australia’s First Nations people. The premiere of Panawathi Girl at the Perth Festival continues this in a big way.

Panawathi Girl comes from the pen of acclaimed Aboriginal playwright David Milroy (Waltzing the Wilarra, Windmill Baby and King Hit). Set in the 1960s, shortly after Indigenous Australians were granted citizenship and voting rights (in their own country), the story follows determined and energetic Molly (played by Whadjuk and Wardandi Noongar Lila McGuire) who returns from the city to the Pilbara country town where she was born.

When the rodeo comes to town it kicks off a series of events which challenge oppressive attitudes and hierarchies, igniting Molly’s inner agent of change. She invites the politicians from Canberra, Gough (Luke Hewitt) and Gorton (Geoff Kelso), who mix with cowboys, hippies and locals in an exploration of old and new attitudes and power struggles. Not even Molly’s estranged relationship with her father Chubb (Peter Docker) is going to stop her personal search for identity. 

An image from Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company's performance of Panawathi Girl, pictured a woman in a blouse and pants sits on a man who is kneeling. They both look out into the distance.
Molly (Lila McGuire) and Ron (Chris Isaacs) in ‘Panawathi Girl’. Photo: Dana Weeks

Panawathi Girl (“Dream Girl” in Milroy’s mother’s Palyku language) includes a song list of 17 tunes with catchy lyrics and emotive sounds and rhythms. Milroy has written 16 of them, with “Shadow in the Dark” credited to Aria Milroy, who at 10 years old makes an impact performing on ukulele. 

Musical direction by Wayne Freer keeps the onstage band of musicians (drums, tuba, violin, bass and guitar) on track from start to finish and they are a joy to watch. Milroy caps off his impressive list of credits by appearing on stage playing acoustic guitar.

The serious themes and the strong emotional journey in Panawathi Girl are balanced with humour and joy; there is political banter and synchronised performances from Hewitt and Kelso, mushroom madness, lamington metaphors, colour blind romances, a toe-tapping song about a pony and, of course, the magical music which underscores the production’s happy ending.

Director Eva Grace Mullaley delivers a streamlined production that moves effortlessly between scenes and story transitions. The storytelling comes with wonderful moments of surprise and the dialogue is so well written, each performer stands out in their own right, even when working as a group.

On Wednesday night my standout moment, without giving too much away, was the short duet performed by Molly and Pansy (Angelica Lockyer), delivered with such tenderness and care the love radiated into the audience. I wasn’t the only one holding back tears.

This is Yirra Yaakin’s first musical production at His Majesty’s Theatre and Bruce McKinven’s highly functional set design embraces the stage space, helping build the sense of a close-knit community in a regional town.

Readers and audiences may be reminded of Jimmy Chi’s Bran Nue Dae, which is often referred to as the first Aboriginal Australian musical. We need to remember that Aboriginal people have been singing, dancing and yarning (storytelling) for thousands upon thousands of years. Panawathi Girl absorbs and extends this rich context of musical performance.

This season of Panawathi Girl for the Perth Festival is sadly all too short and leaves me already advocating for another season because I don’t want anyone to miss out on this amount of fun.

Panawathi Girl continues until 13 February 2022.

Barbara Hostalek has collaborated creatively as an independent artist with Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company.

Pictured top: The cast of David Milroy’s ‘Panawathi Girl’. Photo: Dana Weeks

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Author —
Barbara Hostalek

Barbara Hostalek is an independent First Nations playwright proud to be living with Noongar Boodjar. She began writing plays at Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company’s Writers group in 2015. Her work has been produced by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company (Cracked), Black Swan Theatre Company (Unsung Heroes monologue series: Own Way) and Mudskipper Productions (Banned). Park fun play? Hands down, the sandpit.

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