Theatre review: All the Shining Lights, HotHouse Theatre

This engaging work for families leans into its specificity to tell a universal tale of courage, community and intergenerational friendship.

All the Shining Lights tells the remarkable tale of the Uiver, a Dutch aeroplane participating in the 1934 MacRobertson Trophy Air Race from London to Melbourne.

Lost in a storm and running dangerously low on fuel, the Uiver was encouraged to land at the Albury Racecourse – the town had no airport – through a remarkable community effort that culminated in the people of Albury-Wodonga gathering at the racecourse and using their cars’ headlights to light up a makeshift runway.

After successfully landing the plane became bogged, and it took another collective effort to haul it out of the mud the next day. The Uiver went on to win the handicap section of the MacRobertson Trophy Air Race, coming second overall.

Yackandandah playwright Brendan Hogan’s new play for families is a celebration of this history, created by an entirely local creative team – including members of the Albury-Wodonga diaspora. It’s a fitting production with which to round out HotHouse Theatre’s 25th anniversary season, and while very much of its place and its community, could and should play well to other communities around the country.

Rather than dramatise the story directly, Hogan and his co-creator Carm Hogan (who initially conceived the project) tell the tale through the eyes of Charli, an 11-year-old girl learning about the Uiver for the first time.

Prone to exaggeration and determined to become a writer even though she lacks a storyteller’s sense of craft, Charli is struggling with a school assignment: she has been tasked with interviewing one of the residents at the Sunset Oaks aged-care facility, but John, the elderly man she’s assigned to speak with, is proving remarkably cantankerous and recalcitrant.

Nearing the end of his life, John is waiting to die, and questioning the value of the life he’s lived thus far. ‘What was the point of anything if no one will remember me when I am gone?’ he wonders aloud.

Charli, conversely, is prone to embellishing the truth – for reasons that become heartbreakingly clear in a finely observed and beautifully played scene between John and her mother, after John and Charli fight and her mum comes looking for her at the nursing home.

Only by trusting one another and working together – an apt theatrical metaphor for the task carried out by the people of Albury-Wodonga in 1934 – can the pair learn the real value of stories while also ensuring that John’s vital connection with the past is not forgotten.

All the Shining Lights is beautifully pitched for family audiences. Photo: HotHouse Theatre.

Skilfully directed by HotHouse Theatre’s Artistic Director Karla Conway, All the Shining Lights features a child actor, Ruby Davis, as Charli, and in doing so avoids the saccharine stereotypes sometimes embodied by adults playing children’s roles. Davis showed some initial nerves on opening night, racing through her lines so quickly that they were hard to decipher in the early scenes, but she quickly settled, displaying a charming blend of sass and confidence that easily won over the audience.

As the narrator (and doubling as Charli’s mum, as well as a number of nursing home staff) Rachel McNamara brought charm and energy to her roles, delivering the occasionally trite line with authority while maintaining a strong sense of connection with the audience. Her sleight of hand in the scenes where such skills were required also impressed.

John Walker as the aged John – a man renewed by his friendship with Charli – was superb, sparking laughter with a quip and able to embody his character’s frustration, remorse and rediscovered sense of joy with commitment and emotional dexterity.

Read: Theatre review: 107, The Blue Room Theatre

Brendan Hogan’s script – his first commissioned play ever seen through to production by a professional theatre company – is beautifully pitched for family audiences, dealing with complex themes such as death and memory without becoming maudlin.

Occasional lines jar, such as a speech exploring the concept of what happens to us when we die – it feels like an intrusive additional voice at odds with the general tone of the script. Similarly, the playwright’s decision to include homily-like life lessons for younger audience members sometimes feels strained and self-conscious, though the actors’ collective commitment and Conway’s assured direction easily paper over these flaws.

Also jarring is a clumsy attempt to heighten tension late in the piece, cutting away to the present as John’s retelling of the Uiver story nears its climax – this short scene pulls us out of the drama rather than adding to it, and could easily be excised – but these are minor flaws in what is otherwise a well-observed drama for audiences of all ages.  

Production elements, especially Sophie Woodward’s magic-realism-inspired production design as well as Kofi Isaacs’ confident lighting and Andrée Cozens’ sound design, also enrich proceedings, with a Morse code-connected reveal late in proceedings as beautiful as it is striking.

Like a golden reliquary constructed around a saint’s ossified remains, All the Shining Lights enshrines a legendary story from Albury-Wodonga’s past in a moving piece of contemporary drama and, in doing so, preserves the story for future generations. A memorable and moving production from one of our most important regional theatre companies.

All the Shining Lights
Conceived by Carm Hogan
Created by Carm Hogan and Brendan Hogan
Written by Brendan Hogan
Directed by Karla Conway
Commissioned and produced by HotHouse Theatre
Production Design: Sophie Woodward
Lighting Design: Kofi Isaacs
Composer and Sound Design: Andrée Cozens
Stage Manager: Steph Young
Producer: Beck Palmer
Cast: Ruby Davis, Rachel McNamara and John Walker

The Butter Factory Theatre, Wodonga
10-19 November 2022

The writer visited Wodonga as a guest of HotHouse Theatre.

Richard Watts OAM is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, a Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend, and was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize in 2020. In 2021 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Green Room Awards Association. Most recently, Richard received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in June 2024. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts