The Girls in Grey

Sofia Monkiewicz

THEATREWORKS: This well-researched and beautifully written new Australian play focuses on the women who served as nurses in World War I.
The Girls in Grey
ANZAC Day holds a special place in the hearts of many Australians as we remember the soldiers and army personnel who sacrificed their lives for our country. Generally we focus on the fallen men who fought on the frontline – and rightly so – but it becomes easy to forget about all the other Australians who had equally important roles in World War I, in particular the nurses. The Girls in Grey focuses on the nurses, and gives the audience an opportunity to consider the significance and bravery of these women.

The play illustrates the story of World War I from the perspective of three Australian Army nurses, who are thrown into depths beyond their physical means and who take on responsibilities they weren’t aware they had signed up for. It follows Grace (Carolyn Bock), Elsie (Olivia Connolly) and Alice (Helen Hopkins) as they sail off on their journey, fresh-faced and excited, and we watch as it turns into a horrific and emotional series of events.

Created by two of the performers, Bock and Hopkins, The Girls in Grey has been in development for two years, and the huge effort involved is clear from the calibre of the resulting production. It is well-researched and beautifully written, and incorporates real-life diary entries, letters and anecdotes into an honest and touching interpretation of the tragedies of World War I. The play is very text-heavy and relies on the three nurses to tell their individual stories to the audience. They narrate their own journeys, presenting them to the crowd in great detail, while also breaking away from their monologues to converse with each other and carry out the responsibilities of their job.

The acting was superb. There was no real standout performer, as all three nurses had their own charms and complexities, and the supporting male actor (Lee Mason), who played a range of soldiers throughout the performance, was also a privilege to watch. He managed to portray almost an entire platoon of soldiers at various points of the play, and his characters’ relationships with each nurse were personal and meaningful. The script had the potential to be over-acted, as the words are so descriptive and the monologues so moving, but it was performed at just the right emotional level. It is easy to connect with the inspiring women on stage as they are so real – they gossip with each other; they are excited about the prospect of their travels; they fall in love; they even crave chocolate. Their perspective of the war is a different one to most other productions on this subject, and the show’s creative team have managed to pull off an insightful and raw interpretation of it.

As the script is so dense, all other production elements were kept understandably simple. The set was open and empty, except for a raised decking platform and a ragged grey backdrop, and the soft music was no more than a dramatic heightener that generally went unnoticed unless you were listening out for it. Despite the stage being free from props and furniture, the actors seamlessly conveyed cramped living conditions, the chaotic nurses’ station and the overcrowded hospital wards through their choreographed movements, and at one point the stage became a dangerous battlefield, created entirely by Mason in one of his soldier roles.

Director Karen Martin, along with Bock and Hopkins, has brought to life the devastation of war through the eyes of the Australian Army nurses. The Girls in Grey is inspiring, poignant and honest, and encompasses the spirit of the Anzacs from an alternative and powerful perspective.

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

The Girls in Grey
Created by Carolyn Bock and Helen Hopkins
Directed by Karen Martin
Performed by Carolyn Bock, Olivia Connolly, Helen Hopkins and Lee Mason
Lighting Design: Nick Merrylees
Sound Design: Nick Van Cuylenberg
Set Design: Alexandra Hiller
Costume Design: Lyn Wilson
Production and Stage Manager: Ben Leeks

TheatreWorks, St Kilda
April 25 – May 13

About the author

Sofia Monkiewicz is a Melbourne-based arts writer and reviewer. You can find her on Twitter at: @sofiamonk