By Catriona Inglis
Picnic at Hanging Rock: a show of remarkable intensity and captivating mystery. Both unnerving and thought-provoking, this show will leave you with a lingering sense of unease that stays with you even after the cast has left the stage. Indeed, this show is a must- watch for all of Durham’s thrill seekers. The play embraces the thriller genre to its full extent, pushing the boundaries of storytelling to evoke an unsettling response from the audience.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a play based on the 1967 Australian classic by Joan Lindsay which follows the mystery of three schoolgirls who go missing during a school trip at Hanging Rock. The challenge of producing this classic was substantial especially considering that the script has only been performed previously by one cast. However, Pitch Productions certainly rose to the occasion with their striking performance as Director, Sophie Wright, certainly succeeded in creating a gripping performance. Wright’s use of stillness and silence was particularly effective especially when contrasted with precise, well-choreographed movements of the cast which gradually increased the intensity of the piece to an exciting and climactic end. Every movement within the show was precise and well-rehearsed which gave the show a polished feel. This gave a sense of gravitas to even the simplest of movements: the removal of a hat, a synchronised gesture or even the simple act of moving from one side of the stage to the other; each movement seemed perfectly planned to maintain the tension that was apparent from the moment I walked into the theatre.
It is true that occasionally the stiller sections lagged a little or seemed to go on a little too long without break however these moments were held together through the outstanding performances of all five cast members. The piece certainly relies heavily on its all-female cast through its demanding and focused script which required every cast member to hold the audience’s attention at all times. At many points, the cast would speak out into the audience which would leave them very exposed. Nonetheless, this was something they seemed to pull off with extraordinary ease. The play required each actor to play multiple roles, which was generally handled very well. There were moments when there was a slight blurring of characters, however, these moments tended to be fleeting and did not distract from the excellence of the acting within the show. I would particularly like to mention Francesca Chaplin whose performance as Sara was especially effective. Izzy Hassett’s performance also managed to frighten and shock in her climactic ending.
The set design and lighting was also an incredibly integral part of this show. The story explores thought-provoking themes such as time and reality and the whole play had an ethereal, other-worldly quality that was achieved, in part, through the well-timed changes in the non-naturalistic lighting and the eerie soundtrack. The sounds of the clock were particularly effective as time, and the loss of it, was a running motif throughout the show and the sound was an effective, almost subconscious reminder of the ominous nature of it within the play. Lucien Rhys, the technical director, certainly achieved the desired eerie almost ghostly feeling that was needed to set the tone of the play.
Overall, Picnic at Hanging Rock was a striking and powerful performance that had me gripped from beginning to the end. Not for the faint-hearted, it captivated my imagination and left me more than a little overwhelmed. The show certainly brings something a little different to Durham Student Theatre and is sure to leave you in a state of shock and awe and maybe even a little fear.
Photograph: Samuel Kirkman