Shining a beacon of light on our history

23 May 2023

With a movie screen providing a magnificent backdrop to the action, Theatre 180’s latest CineStage epic is a powerful and accessible introduction to World War I, from an Australian perspective, writes David Zampatti.

The Lighthouse Girl Saga, Theatre 180
Ace Cinemas Midland, 19 May 19 2023

Dianne Wolfer’s semi-historical stories, The Lighthouse Girl and its companion piece, The Lighthouse Boy, have become familiar to West Australians, especially after their gigantic representation at Perth Festival in 2015.

Playwright Hellie Turner turned the first, sad story into a terrific stage production for Black Swan State Theatre Company in 2017, and she now collaborates with Jenny Davis to combine both books and deliver the third (after A Fortunate Life and HMAS Sydney: Lost and Found) of the innovative and popular CineStage series for Theatre 180.

At the outbreak of World War I, Fay (Sienna Cate) lived with lighthouse-keeper father (Nick Maclaine) on Breaksea Island at the entrance to Albany’s Frenchman Bay. When supplies ran short, Fay would shoot mutton-birds to eat with a salad of stinging nettle.

The known history and the play’s story continue as the fleet bearing the First Australian Imperial Force, 30,000 young men from the Eastern States and New Zealand, anchors in the harbour before departing for that foreign, fatal shore across the Dardanelles from ancient Troy.

Fay is forbidden by her father to go across to Albany to see the soldiers parade, but begins communicating with them in semaphore and Morse, and sending their messages home to mums, dads, wives and sweethearts.

Now Turner and Davis combine the imagined stories in Wolfer’s books. Fay strikes up a flag-waving conversation with a young Lighthorseman, Charlie (Maclaine) that continues, and becomes more intense, as the men leave, bound, finally, for Gallipoli and ANZAC Cove.

Bound by adventure and naivety: Charlie (Nick Maclaine) and Jim (Isaac Diamond). Photo: Green Man Media and Mike Hemmings

Charlie and his lifelong friend Jim (Isaac Diamond) are united by adventure and naivety, tough, handsome boys marching without hesitation into a charnel house, and the love, sight unseen, that grows between Fay and Charlie is emblematic of the emotional bonds between those who went and those who stayed behind, and its terrible cost.

That cost is also borne by their animals, the “Waler” Australian stock horses; Sandy, the horse of Major General William Bridges (Maclaine), the only WWI Australian soldier, apart from the unknown one, whose body was returned to Australia, and Jim’s own Breaker.

Charlie is killed at Lone Pine, and Jim is wounded and blinded in France, but love unseen comes to him too, in Rose, a local girl who nurses him in the rehab hospital in rural England.

After the horror is over Jim returns to his sister Alice (Cate), damaged, haunted, but alive. Life goes on, but changed utterly.

A scene from The Lighthouse Girl Saga, in which a young woman has fallen to her knees, crying. She is comforted by an older man.
Life goes on, but changed utterly. Pictured are Sienna Cate as Fay and Nick Maclaine as her father. Photo: Green Man Media and Mike Hemmings

Director Stuart Halusz (who also directed the 2017 Black Swan production) delivers the expert stagecraft required to tell the story with an excellent cast, albeit one that would have been well served by a couple more “hands on deck”.

The stinger in all Theatre 180 CineStage productions is the images on the great movie screen behind the live performance that is a magnificent backdrop for the action, designed by Gneiss Design and produced by Sunburnt Films.

From vast panoramas of our beloved Australian landscapes (you can feel the aching longing those boys must have felt for it) to remarkable colourised photos of candid moments in and behind the trenches, or horror in the killing fields of no-man land and artillery barrages, they lift our vision and stir our emotions.

If I have a qualm about The Lighthouse Girl Saga it’s that its sweep is now so vast that small but vital moments pass so quickly that we lose some of the intimacy that made the earlier stage version so moving.

But something lost is something gained. For the audiences that will see The Lighthouse Girl Saga in cinemas and town halls right across WA and, hopefully, even further afield over coming years, it’s an accessible, instructive and powerful introduction to one of the most visceral, elemental times in our nation’s history.

The Lighthouse Girl Saga continues at ACE Cinemas Midland until 28 May and heads to ACE Cinemas Rockingham 9-11 June 2023.

Pictured top: Fay (Sienna Cate) meets her sweetheart via semphore. Photo: Green Man Media and Mike Hemmings

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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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