Theatre review | Picnic at Hanging Rock

The Lyceum, Edinburgh Co-produced by Australia’s Malthouse Theatre, and Black Swan State Theatre Company Adapted for the theatre by Tom Wright, from the novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay Directed by Matthew Lutton Don’t let the title fool you – this isn’t a twee story about a picnic being spoiled by some petty bickering among friends. Take a hint from the stark images in the posters and leave the pork pies and quiche at home. From the first sounds of J. David Franzke’s soundscape, the audience is immersed in an unspeakable tension for 90 minutes of this one-act powerhouse of a story, co-presented at the Lyceum by Australia’s Malthouse Theatre and Black Swan State Theatre Company. The stripped-back production, directed with razor precision by Matthew Lutton (impressively listed as one of Australia LGBTs ‘ones to watch’), keeps the unsuspecting audience on the edge of their seats. Five fantastic young actresses from Melbourne lead us through a story about a group of friends who go missing from the mysterious Hanging Rock while on a school trip. The play is a real ensemble piece, as all five of the young actresses play characters ranging from the teachers and the young schoolmates to members of the local community concerned by the mysteries of the eponymous rock. The audience is so gripped by the story that we forget we’re watching the same talented group of five throughout. While there’s plenty of tension (and jump scares: you have been warned!), the play also delivers a poignant message about the importance of experience of the real world versus the overly rigid strictures of a formal education. Tom Wright’s script is so beautifully written that this message is not rammed down the viewer’s throat; we can arrive at our own conclusions, in our own time. It also brilliantly expresses the Australian sense of humour, because even in amongst the masses of tension, we are privy to a wry laugh or two. Photo credit: Pia Johnson The design of the rock itself is composed of sticks and branches, suspended upstage, and lit to assert its domineering presence. While it resembles a bird’s nest, costume and set designer Zoë Atkinson’s creation suggests nothing remotely cosy or homely. For me, the design of the rock called to mind the woods from our favourite fairy tales as children – existing solely to make or to break our heroes and heroines. The set fully utilises the stage at the Lyceum by playing with our sense of perception and making the space appear longer than it is. Hanging Rock isn’t as far away as your mind wants you to believe that it is. This is a play that will stay with the audience hours after the actresses have taken their final, well-earned bows. Engrossing and affecting. Words: PAUL COPLAND