HAVING received critical acclaim at the 2009 Sydney Theatre Awards, and being highly praised at the 2008 New York Musical Theatre Festival, Australian musical The Hatpin is now making its European debut at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell.
The narrative follows a young, poverty stricken mother, Amber Murray, who advertises her baby for temporary care in the belief he will have a better life. Her baby is sought out by the wealthy “baby-farmers” family, the Makins, but Amber is soon driven by suspicion and desperation to hunt down the illusive couple when she is continually denied access to her child.
Set in central Sydney at the close of the nineteenth century, the musical is inspired by one of the most shocking court cases to occur in Australian history. Not to worry though, this isn’t typical Australiana and you won’t be berated by badly disguised or overtly Aussie accents.
Tucked away between the winding streets of Camberwell, far from the bright lights of the East End, the Blue Elephant Theatre provides a perfectly intimate setting for the show. The dimly-lit theatre is shrouded in a blanket of haze from the moment you walk in, giving the impression you’re literally stepping through the mists of time to a much darker, drearier age.
The stage is completely bare, broken by a semi-transparent curtain and furnished only with a couple of rickety wooden chairs. The dense fog adds a depth to the shadowy backdrop which is pierced by single spotlights. The intensity is only diffused by the mist that bathes the stage in a soft glow.
The direction exhibits a strong influence of physical theatre, using bodies as a form of expression to create an element of dynamism to the otherwise static set. The unchanging lighting, backdrop and overall tone of the musical does lead it to the edge of tedium at points, but the monotony is mostly broken by the physicality of the performance.
The quite substantial cast fill the stage adding movement and confusion to build tension, and empty it to accentuate themes of loneliness and destitution. At other times actors gather in the background, emerging through the fog in a dance-like trance, like phantoms haunting the stage.
The excellent blocking and use of freezes throughout the entire show create picturesque scenes that beg to be photographed at every turn.
Gemma Beaton gives an inspired performance as Amber Murray, portraying the very human side to the young mother’s plight. Vocals in the predominantly female cast were strong overall, with a lone piano providing the backing to the generally quite moving musical pieces.
Some numbers, such as “Puddles”, are less lyrically inspired than others, with lines such as “puddles are just puddles, when you look at them you’ll find they can never really hurt you”, seeming a tad juvenile considering the gravity of the context.
The Hatpin is a haunting and incredibly emotive tale of motherhood, suspicion and doubt, true friendship and the pursuit of justice. This musical is a must-see for theatre enthusiasts, so if you’re up for a trip to South-East London, don’t miss this show.
The Hatpin is playing at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell until 24 November. See www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk for tickets.
Nearest tube: Oval (Northern Line)
(Images: Adam Trigg)