REVIEW: Sister Anzac (Stark Theatre)

WWI's real heroes.

Women at war [by Sharu Delilkan]

WWI's real heroes.
WWI’s real heroes.

We’ve all seen numerous theatrical incarnations this year commemorating the centenary of WWI but one heralding women is definitely a departure from the norm. And that’s exactly what sets Geoff Allen‘s show Sister Anzac apart from the otherwise male dominated war stories.

Inspired by Allen‘s grandfather A. S. Allen’s experience of ANZAC nurses on Lemnos Island, Sister Anzac provides great insight into the heroic duties of our unsung nurses, aka women, who provided a great deal of support during Gallipoli.

Led by astute director Amanda Rees, the six-strong ensemble – Donogh Rees (Matron Alice Corkindale), Gina Timberlake (Sister Hilda O’Neill), Alex Ellis (Sister Maggie Haynes), Anthea Hill (Vad Elsie Livesey), David Capstick (Colonel Shelby Carter) and Jordan Blaikie (Sergeant Harry Young) – breathe life skilfully into their individual personas with such ease and elegance. Not surprising since the show has had quite a few outings prior to this opening night at Auckland’s newest home of Maori theatre, Te Pou.

However as with any production there are always standouts that cannot be ignored. Rees (Donogh) has the audience eating out of the palm of her hand as soon as she utters her first lines on stage. She is mesmerising as Conrkindale who leads the capable nursing crew. Ellis’ performance is also noteworthy as she demonstrates her acting latitude – starting off as a hard-as-nails bolshy Aussie Sheila who reveals her vulnerability when she’s forced to deal with unforeseen circumstances. Unfortunately the pairing of Blaikie and Hill as the young couple in love doesn’t quite hit the mark. The couple lacks chemistry, making their love story not as believable and poignant. Much as I really wanted to identify with the touching storyline unfolding in front of me I just felt their attraction lacked that spark that would have given their relationship an air of conviction and depth.

As always John Parker‘s minimalist set displayed a great deal of forethought and versatility. I liked the ANZAC flag painted on the backdrop, which very quickly turned into the curtains for the medical ward and with just another flick of the fabric converted into the nurses’ tents. Unfortunately having not seen any previous incarnations of this show I can’t compare this set to their site specific performances at the Navy museum – something I heard quite a bit of while walking through Te Pou’s foyer during the after function.

Fiona Nichols and Elizabeth Whiting‘s costumes were equally adaptable and practical, and definitely had an air of authenticity in keeping with the era. I loved the fact that their aprons worked as great adornments, changing the look of their costumes in the same way their habits did. The pockets in the front of the aprons were a genius design making it easy for the nurses to wear or dispose of their cuffs as required. This great attention to detail allowed the nurses to have minimal costume changes with maximum effect.

Thomas Press‘ sound and music composition, along with Allen‘s son Morgan‘s sound effects, further validated the play’s era. Press’ music choices were perfect, helping to set the tone and ambience of the play right from the start.

Whether you’re interested in finding out about the ANZAC nurses or you’re just a WWI buff Sister Anzac will definitely be your cup of tea. Otherwise if you haven’t had the chance to make your way to Te Pou, this is the perfect opportunity to support the unsung war heroes while supporting the Going West Festival.

Stark Theatre presents Sister Anzac, part of the Going West Festival, plays at Te Pou until 6 September. Details see Going West Festival

SEE ALSO: review by Nik Smythe

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