David Reeves’ musical adaptation of Ethel Turner’s 19th century novel, Seven Little Australians, premiered in Melbourne back in 1988. The Stirling Players’ 2023 production of the musical is an ambitious undertaking, affectionately directed by Kimberley Shaw.
Word for word, the first lines of Turner’s classic book spill across the stage. ‘Before you fairly start this story…’ and then the play begins. The opening backdrop may be a black and white photograph of Inglewood, the house in which Ethel Turner wrote Seven Little Australians, in 1893. Or, it may be Misrule, home of the fictional Woolcot family. Either way, it sets the scene effectively.
Esther Woolcot (played by Isabella Borgault) appears onstage with a basket of flowers, singing prettily about the first day of spring. The music grows jaunty and becomes a chaotic round as Esther’s seven step-children are introduced, one by one. Meg, the eldest, is encapsulated by Ciara Malone, while Pip (Boh Dobson) and Judy (Escher Roe) are every bit the incorrigible duo. Alice Kosovich perfectly embodies Nell, and Daniel Keenan brings cheeky energy to his character, Bunty. The youngest cast members, Jessical Keenan and Mila Campbell, shine as Baby and the Little General, respectively.
An adult dinner party takes centre stage, and four guests arrive, including Ron Arthurs as Colonel Bryant and Ann Speicher as Miss Burton. The children are relegated to the edges of the stage, to eat their measly bread and jam. Judy’s plan to acquire roast chicken threatens their authoritarian father, Captain Woolcot, with potential professional embarrassment. This scene is filled with subtle moments of comic delivery, including changes of tone and upside down books.
The children are punished, and Esther sings about how children go to heaven if they are good. Esther has a more central focus in the stage adaptation than in the book. This particular production attempts to invest the audience’s emotion in Esther’s relationship with Captain Woolcot, but fails in this respect, through no fault of the actors or director. The child-centric focus of the source material may have framed the Woolcot patriarch more emphatically, but the changes in social norms that emotionally isolate the historically-situated Captain Woolcot from the audience are not minimised by giving preference to a more adult lens.
Fortunately, the additional focus does enable Mathew Leak to showcase his acting prowess. Leak portrays Woolcot, not as a militant authority figure, but as a petulant bully, whose ego bruises easily. Despite Leak’s intentional softening of Turner’s hard-edged character, it is surprisingly hard to feel sorry for Woolcot. One emotionally confusing song intends to make the audience feel sorry for Captain Woolcot’s inability to see he is loved, while simultaneously implying he knowingly entered into a transactional marriage with an exploitable young woman, at her expense. Reflected in the mirror of Esther’s warmth, Woolcot only seems colder.
When Judy is told she must leave Misrule, Roe’s channelled positivity and exuberance shine through, underlining the sibling closeness that would have made the moment more poignant had their bond been emphasised earlier – preferably in place of that song about their father’s insecurity. The dynamic between Meg and Aldith (Amelie Ree) is transformed from a toxic friendship to no friendship at all, and the trajectory of Meg’s character veers in a different direction to the book, enabling her to mature as a person and overcome certain notions, minus the peer pressure and harmful tight-lacing.
An interesting combination of pre-recorded backing tracks and live music accompany the cast in an impressive 27 musical numbers. Most of these are challenging songs, performed with vintage-style vocals and many sustained notes. ‘Parramatta River’ is charmingly performed by Dobson, Roe and Malone. ‘Krangi-Bahtoo’, this musical’s answer to ‘Do-Re-Mi’, highlights the captivating dynamic between the mostly-very-young cast. Some minor technical issues may detract from the overall sound quality, but not in a way that impairs the performance of any cast member.
Energy from the performers (and drumming from the hallway) brings some otherwise uninspired audio tracks to life, to the musical credit of the Stirling Players. Violin, washboard and even spoons make entertaining appearances towards the end of the second act. The production is vocally carried by the outstanding voices of Borgault, Roe and Malone, with a little help from Leak.
Much of the comedic heavy lifting is done by Kerry Good as Martha, in addition to Speicher and Arthurs, who is slightly terrifying as Colonel Bryant. Madeleine Shaw’s choreography makes creative use of the stage and the spaces beyond, and preferences movement and line formation, resulting in well-timed tableaux for finishing beats.
Historically-inspired costumes, designed by Lyn Hutcheon with the assistance of Fran Gordon, are neither too little, nor too much. The pink dress worn by Judy seems to be an intentional call back to the book’s iconic scythe scene, which doesn’t appear in the play. The set design and stage dressing capture the colonial Australian aesthetic, with a real chaise longue, retro trunks and antique chests for the larder. Digital backdrops include combinations of monochromatic drawings and photographs, presumably from illustrated editions of the book. The final scenes make impactful use of six screens depicting the Australian bush landscape, augmented by Joe Teakle’s audiovisual design.
A most memorable moment of the show (if you’ve read the book, you know the one) occurs offstage, and even the presence of the good Courtney brother (Riley Merigan) isn’t enough to save the day. This shocking moment is followed by the reprise of a certain song about children and heaven, which drives the tragedy home without lingering on specifics. Rushing past the final moments of a beloved character’s life is probably the wisest choice in this case, as prolonging would render the audience too tear-blind to witness the heart-warming finale, ‘Look for a Rainbow’.
Beginning with a spring day and ending with a summer storm, the Stirling Players’ production of Seven Little Australians loyally resurrects a beloved Australian classic with energetic enthusiasm and authentic affection. This unforgettable story about a spirited girl (who’d sooner die than adjust to “polite society”) will be adored by audiences, young and old.
Seven Little Australians
Stirling Theatre, Innaloo, WA
Director: Kimberly Shaw
Musical Director: Samantha Ashman
Choreographer: Madeleine Shaw
Sound Design: Ian Wilson
AV Design: Joe Teakle
Set Construction: David Wall and Ian Wilson
Costume Designer: Lyn Hutcheon with Fran Gordon
Crew: Tom Kosovich
Seven Little Australians will be performed until 22 July 2023.