The Lighthouse Girl

Mariyon Slany

Daisy Coyle as the young Fay maintains a youthful energy and spirit that marks her out as one to watch.
The Lighthouse Girl

The Lighthouse Girl presented by WA’s Black Swan Theatre Company. Image by Lee Griffith Photograph.

In a packed out theatre, the Perth audience is entranced by this Anzac story The Lighthouse Girl based in Albany at the southernmost end of the WA coast.  It had its world premiere in Albany before the Perth season and audiences are making the most of it, with many performances selling out.

This work is truly a team effort. Based on West Australian author Dianne Wolfer’s book Lighthouse Girl, it uses the true story of Faye Howe with Wolfer recreating the period of Australian history 1914 to 1918 from the perspective of a young girl. The book won WA Young Reader Book in 2010 and was shortlisted for two Premier’s Book Awards.  Wolfer used an interview with Don Watson as her inspiration.  Watson’s mother, Fay Catherine Howe was just fifteen when she stood on the island signalling to the departing WWI fleet in morse code and postcards came back addressed to ‘The little girl on Breaksea Island’.  Fay lives on Breaksea Island off Albany with her father and de facto grandfather.  We are privy to the World War I spirit that meant young men ‘wanted the great adventure’ of war and often signed up when they were under age.  Fay is part of the community who waits out the war, hoping and wondering and with her semaphore and Morse code became probably the last Australian contact with those men leaving for the war.

Evocatively directed by Stuart Halusz who acknowledged Kate Cherry in programming this work before her departure, the work cleverly incorporates music, photographs and archive materials.  The book was used as inspiration by playwright Hellie Turner with dramaturgy by Polly Low.  Hellie Turner has worked extensively across the WA theatre sector and has won awards for her work including Bench, Sardines and Billy Windlock. She has also presented her play Mesh in London and was invited to an international playwright’s festival in NY to present her work in 2013.  She was artist in residence at Black Swan in 2015 and 2016. Most recently she completed her documentary theatre work Project Xan, which she also directed at PICA, showing the range of both her writing and theatre skills, which are evident in this work.

The most moving sections are photographs from the boats with hundreds of young men on them, and the fighting images from World War I; we could have done with more of these that made the human tragedy and pathos very real.  There is a truthfulness to the reflection of this more genteel time in Australia’s history counterpointed against the horrors of war as experienced by the naïve young men.  Fay also provided inspiration for the well-known Perth performance of The Giants at PIAF 2015.

The actors are uniformly excellent.  This is a highly realistic play with sit down dinners, letters to loved ones and conversations about teenage rebellion all spelt out, and it takes some acting talent to maintain interest when we are given many realistic scenes. Daisy Coyle in her debut with the company as the young Fay maintains a youthful energy and spirit that marks her out as one to watch. Benj D’Addario is the right amount of reserved distance in this early 20th century father role to Fay but has a contemporary authenticity to him.  Murray Dowsett as the older ‘sage’ living on the island with them, fulfils the ‘joker’ role even if some of the older man moments are somewhat caricatured. Nick Maclaine is doubly convincing as both Frank and as Major Bridges, showing the easy range he has in his acting.  Alex Malone plays the sister left behind by the young adventurers and is hauntingly poignant in her rendition of reading correspondence from far off foreign lands. Will McNeill and Giuseppe Rotondella play the pair of adventurers Charlie and Jim who can’t wait to leave for war with Rotondella bringing much humour to his role – they are members of the Light Horse Brigade and the story of animals is interwoven.  The ensemble work is highlighted at moments such as when they all sing, but overall the acting work is extraordinary.   

Set design by Lawrie Cullen-Tait optimises an archway of cliff stones that work for both the peak of the Island but also the Egyptian pyramids, and serve as distance from overseas when reading letters to those below in the shelter.  The creation of separate locations in Australia through placement on stage shows the well combined creativity of set designer, director and lighting designer. The enactment of horse interaction is vivid through both the passion of the actors, the clever writing but also the use of props, sound and lighting.  Brett Smith’s work on sound throughout the performance was memorable.  Special mention of costume design by Lynn Ferguson as the clothes clearly communicated restraint, and told their own story about restrictions, mores and underlying assumptions about duty, country and family from that period.

The only small gripe being the diary style entry of dates frequently coming up the screen – often unnecessary to understanding the context of the play – and a marker that shows you the majority of the play takes places in 1915 until the final quarter of the action suddenly results in a denouement and we are landed in 1918.  The Lighthouse Girl is a warmly welcomed but not too nationalistic reminder about how stranger’s lives can be thrust together through war and extreme circumstance, and have lifelong impacts.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The Lighthouse Girl

Written by Hellie Turner based on the books by Dianne Wolfer
Directed by Stuart Halusz
Set design by Lawrie Cullen-Tait
Lighting design by Joe Lui
Costume Design by Lynn Ferguson
Sound Design by Brett Smith
Performed by Black Swan Theatre Company - Daisy Coyle, Benj D’addario, Murray Dowsett, Nick Maclaine, Alex Malone, Will McNeil and Giuseppe Rotondella.
Studio Underground at State Theatre Centre of WA at 7.00pm. 28th April – 14th May 2017

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Mariyon Slany runs her own communications and art consultancy. Her formal qualifications in Visual Arts, Literature and Communications combine well with her experience in media and her previous work as WA’s Artbank Consultant for her current position as Public Art Consultant.