Image by Perth Festival
Words by Cleo Robins
Panawathi Girl, presented by Yirra Yaakin theatre company, is a bona fide piece of musical theatre that has done in ninety minutes what over a decade of Australian schooling could not; give an honest and sincere insight into the history of this country. Through song and dance, nonetheless.
The musical was brought into being by playwright David Milroy, a former artistic director of Yirra Yaakin with a long list of theatre writing credits, including the plays Waltzing the Wilarra and Windmill Baby. Milroy first conceived the idea for Panawathi Girl while perusing archival newspaper clips. He came across an advertisement for a Rodeo Ball which proclaimed; “Coloured girls are welcome.” This advertisement inspired the key events of the musical, which revolve around Molly Chubb (Lila McGuire), who returns to the north-western country town where she was born, to visit the grave of a mother she has never met. Throughout the play, Molly’s quest is continually stymied by the tense relationship between the Aboriginal and white residents of Chubb Springs, which is brought to the fore by the arrival of the rodeo.
Milroy and director Eva Grace Mullaley have created a play that is unpretentious, yet bold. This is exemplified by the set design, which emulates the many settings of the play through the clever manipulation of curtains and wooden doorframes, the latter emblazoned with the reappropriated slogan Terra nullius for ironic effect. The accompaniment band was also fully visible for the duration of the performance, an anomaly for a musical play. The inclusion of the musicians was not only handy for the Rodeo Ball sequence but also served to highlight the importance and vitality of live music itself. While instrumentation is a key factor of any musical theatre production, too often the invisibility of the musicians relegates the music to the position of an extra-diegetic afterthought. In Panawathi Girl, this is not the case. The band brought life to the myriad of musical styles which were adapted within the play and gave the slower, more soulful numbers, which were some of the show’s most moving moments, a raw emotional depth.
The cast of Panawathi Girl is comprised of several local and interstate actors, many of whom study or have studied at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). All of the actors gave terrific performances, slipping between their main character roles and the ensemble with ease. The energy that the show’s triple-threat cast brought to the stage was infectious, and Panawathi Girl has rollicking dance numbers aplenty. The standout performance of the night was given by Manuao TeAotonga, who plays one of Molly’s university friends, JoJo. TeAotonga’s joyful performance was underscored by his beautiful voice, which filled His Majesty’s Theatre with soaring ease.
As a period piece, Panawathi Girl makes reference to the socio-political climate of late sixties Australia, in particular alluding to the 1967 referendum. There are also a couple of Hamilton-esque songs dedicated to the 1969 federal election contest between Gogh Whitlam and John Gorton. Where the show really shines, however, is in its depiction of the everyday lives of its characters. The complex relationship between Molly, whose father is white, and Ada (Teresa Rose), an Aboriginal girl working for the rodeo, is one of the most compelling narrative arcs of the show. The two women have shared goals and values, but are constantly pushed apart by the racial segregation of their society. Ultimately, Panawathi Girl’s main quest is to give its audience pause when thinking about how much has really changed since the sixties and to remind us of the necessity of honesty in the creation of a shared future.