Theatre Review: STC’s Playing Beatie Bow

A joyful production to appeal delightfully to young and old.

Playing Beatie Bow, from Kate Mulvany, is sure to have a life well beyond the four walls of Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Theatre, but this bespoke creation by Director Kip Williams revels in the drama that pure black walls and the merest hints of place bring to the imagination of a watcher.  It is a text of scholarship and theatricality which enables an almost empty space to sprawl with personal story and historical echoes. A joyful production to appeal delightfully to young and old. 

Read: Theatre Review: The Pulse, Gravity and Other Myths (Adelaide Festival)

Based on the childhood favourite novel by Ruth Park, this production reaches out from the story into the landscape in which we sit to view it. With an honouring grasp of the great ancientness of the land, the production is conceived with bareness under foot. Park’s much-loved story abides in both essence and snatches, which ring so true as to be magic themselves. If the reverence for the novel does make scenes too many and some a little long, the respect is entirely appropriate.

‘Visually, there is superb evocation in material and form to frame the story.’

Visually, there is superb evocation in material and form to frame the story. The solidity of tables and the slightest of paneless windows have a period recognisability, as does the occasionally seen undergarment and recurrence of wind swayed sheets.  While it is the evocation which gives the grand tour of The Rocks, it is the endowment which tells the human story of Abigail who is snatched from now and taken back to the past by Beatie.  William’s cast have extraordinary control over the constant onstage scene changes and with a visually narrative constancy of character – whichever of the 60 characters they be.

Sydney Theatre Company’s Playing Beatie Bow. Photo: Daniel Boud.

As Abigail, Catherine Văn-Davies helms Playing Beatie Bow with a modern sensibility which stands in for the watcher who is also transported – but even further back, beyond the oyster midden long lost.  Both Abigail’s frustration and her growth are shown with detail despite the challenges of vast air around her.  Sofia Nolan’s Beatie is mischievous and afeared of her gift.  A gift personified by Heather Mitchell’s wonderful performance as Granny whose wisdom and spirit stay with one on the newly strange after-show walk through the streets to the train. This ensemble is overflowing with brilliant performances which are one with the story and with the considerable emotional demands of this acutely sensitive production.

‘Abigail follows Beatie through time into a suddenly sepia world. It is breathtaking, that moment.’

The use of technology never takes the audience out of the story and period, even the blue of the fixtures, so visible in the grid, are stars above the colonial action. In one marvellous intervention, Abigail follows Beatie through time into a suddenly sepia world. It is breathtaking, that moment. Drums and fiddles ground the listener in period and the ‘magic’ is created with performance rather than tech theatrics. 

Perhaps it is inevitable that flats will come to this grandly conceived performance space, this is Sydney after all, but this initially stripped out theatre holds Playing Beatie Bow in its walls for as long as it stands. A production of hindsight to inspire a future.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5 ★★★

Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park
Sydney Theatre Company
An adaptation for the stage by Kate Mulvany, and Directed by Kip Williams. Cast: Tony Cogin, Lena Cruz, Claire Lovering, Heather Mitchell, Sofia Nolan, Rory O’Keeffe, Guy Simon, Catherine Văn-Davies, and Ryan Yeates.
Wharf 1 Theatre
26 February-1 May 2021


Judith Greenaway
About the Author
Judith grew up as a theatre brat with parents who were jobbing actors and singers. She has now retired from a lifetime of teaching and theatre work with companies small and large and spends evenings exploring the wealth of indie and professional theatre available in Sydney.