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Brighton Fringe 2024

Picnic at Hanging Rock

New Venture Theatre, Brighton

Genre: Adaptation, Costume, Drama, Short Plays, Theatre, Tragedy

Venue: New Venture Theatre Studio

Festival: ,

Low Down

The New Venture’s Studio space often releases the uncanny in close-up. Tom Wright’s 2016 Picnic at Hanging Rock, directed at NVT till May 25th by Diane Robinson reveals a play weirder than Peter Weir’s 1975 film, faithful to the novel.

Stunning, this will haunt NVT’s Studio as much as it will you.


Directed by Diane Robinson, Assistant Director Natasha Higdon, Production Manager Tamsin Mastoris Stage Manager, Katie Brownings, ASMs Carol Croft, Lauren Fassam, Claudia Ezraeelian

Set Design Judith Berrill, Set Painting Judith Berrill

Set Construction Simon Glazier, Sam Deards, George Walter

Lighting Design Strat Mastoris, Lighting Rigging Sabrina Giles, Strat Mastoris, Lighting Operation Sabrina Giles, Moon Berglind

Sound Design Scott Smith & Sound Programming Ian Black, Projections Torrin Gieler

Costume Design Lindsay Midali, Costume Assistant Jackie Jones, Costume Dressers Katie Brownings, Carol Croft, Claudia Ezraeelian Hair & Make-Up Chris Horlock

Sound Operation Cameron Davies, Esther Dracott, Ollie Wilson,

Props & Set Furniture Diane Robinson, Katie Brownings, Guy Dixon

Voice/Accent  Coaching, Kirrily Long

Poster & Programme Tamsin Mastoris & Strat Mastoris, Photography Strat Mastoris, Publicity, Marketing Media Debbie Willsher, Tamsin Mastoris, Health and Safety Ian Black.

With thanks to Graham Walls, Geoff Springett, Wick Theatre Company, Box Office FOH and Volunteers

Till May 25th


The New Venture’s Studio space often releases the uncanny in close-up. Tom Wright’s 2016 Picnic at Hanging Rock, directed at NVT till May 25th by Diane Robinson reveals a play weirder than Peter Weir’s 1975 film, faithful to the novel.

Writing of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 Picnic at Hanging Rock, the late Mark Fisher notes the inclusion of a deleted chapter ”pushes the novel into some space between the weird and the eerie.” Without adopting the surreal ‘explanation’ Wright does backfill the eerie and make absence present over a hypnotic 90 minutes. That’s what this spellbinding production delivers.

Five women  – present-day Australian actors, though this is only highlighted with 21st century names never used – inhabit the story. They’re in period school unform to begin with. Multi-roling they morph and – as they often repeat – fill in the “backstory” a contemporary word signalling they’re not quite what they seem. Nevertheless, any vestige of the 21st century vanishes mysteriously and we’re back on February 14th 1900, and aftermath.

Fisher contrasting Lindsay with ghost-story writer MR James notes that “sometimes a disappearance can be more haunting than an apparition” and Robinson’s production semaphores absence: vanishings, split-seconds sightings and they’re gone.

Strat Mastoris’ lighting blacks out to re-emerge with lightning-strikes of haunted poses, moments of inexplicable posture and throwing half-lights on Judith Berrill’s extraordinary stage-paintings. Credit to operators Sabrina Giles and Moon Berglind. Hands and patterns glimmer on two walls like indigenous paintings, against which a bureau and clock rest downstage, gestures of a futile civilising against the encroaching vastness of rock. Indeed Australia is: “scum… crust above molten magma.”

Starting as a Greek chorus five actors turn into four girls and their maths teacher who range too far up Hanging Rock. One never ascends and returns incoherent. Another’s found amnesiac days later.

Miranda, Marion, Irma, and glum Edith leave the picnic alongside Miss McCraw: Miranda wants to measure, and in Wright’s play she’s the invisible one whom Irma and another girl, Sara are enthralled by. Passing young Englishman Michael ‘Mike’ Fitzhubert and Australian friend, Albert Crundell, the girls climb the Rock and fall asleep in torpor.

Edith, wakes, screams, flees back as the rest ascend to a crevice. Edith’s incoherent narrative (including abandoned behaviour) sparks fruitless Police searches and Mike conducts a solo search; though injured, he finds Irma. Later she and Mike take tea before she leaves, but her civilised moment’s counterpointed by ferocious blame from remaining girls (with vestigial anti-Semitism).

Sara’s the girl abandoned by her guardian, whom Mrs Appleyard bullies – cruelty and sexuality’s played out. Scorning to read Sara’s ode Appleyard crushes Sara to devastating effect. We learn she’s Albert’s sister.

Robinson directs this multi-roling quintet with jump-cuts of silence and foreboding. Each emerge from their initial Rock roles to navigate an aftermath of haunted survivors. The  dimension of 21st-century performative exploration of five actors trying to solve the mystery suggest they’re so absorbed in the horror we’re left with their names and no presence.

Amber (Joanna Joy Salter) is briefly Marion, and principally Mike. Salter’s athletic spinning presence is poised against Mike’s vestigial Englishness questioning itself in a stubborn, heroic resolve, both to Albert and Irma.

Harriet (Jessica Massserson) is initially reluctant Edith who breaks down but again scores as truculent friend to Mike, Albert preaching common-sense but prone to waking dreams, like Mike. Performative maleness is fissured with the uncanny, a consciousness of limits Mrs Appleyard never knows.

Elisabeth (Isabella Boreham) though vestigially Miranda, proves mesmerising as Mrs Appleyard, crusted with English civilisation and poetry like barnacles, certainly not reading any new work but praising Felicia Hemans and “the boy stood on the burning deck” a prophetic sentiment. Boreham burns Sara like ice, adamantine and unyielding till a final headlong gesture.

Nikki (Amelia Thurley) as Irma throughout first emerges as at 17, sexually aware, noting Mike as she climbs, then later traumatised, finding her voice against Appleyard. She’s yet another touched by Miranda and responding to Mike’s sensitive exploration, almost reluctantly undertaken. True civilisation, admittedly with tea, is only navigated by two who’ve touched horror, injury (Mike breaks ribs and collapses, Irma’s exposed) and near-death.

Thurley briefly figures too as a police inspector, interrogating Holly Hinchcliffe in her role as Edith (wearing Harry Potter glasses) after she returns.

Arielle (Holly Hinchcliffe) briefly Miss McCraw, is then Edith, whispering when interrogated of seeing the teacher as “dishabillée”. She’s mesmerising with another terror altogether: the traumatising effect of bullying leading her to starve herself just to begin with. The scenes with Hinchcliffe’s Sara and Boreham’s Appleyard are electrifying and play out as counterpoint to the Rock.

Artificial and elemental prove anti-human but one solution might be to acknowledge both, and walk between dark and dark, a shining space. Moments of surprise, apparitions and more, need to be experienced.

Scott Smith’s sound, sequenced by Ian Black and worked by Olly Wilson is as liminal as you’d hope. Lindsay Midali’s

late Victorian period costumes are superlative, and dressers led by Jackie Jones – who designed the uniform from kilts – perform changes to professional speed. The effect’s completed with Chris Horlock’s wigs; the actors themselves devised make-up.

Stunning, this will haunt NVT’s Studio as much as it will you.