STEVE Gooch’s play Female Transport had its first performances in 1974, predating Timberlake Wertenbaker’s (far superior and better known) play Our Country’s Good by 14 years.
It is the Gooch play that Tim Greathead has chosen for the April production at Studio Theatre’s Ashley Road base.
Set on board the former warship HMS Juliana in 1797, it follows the story of six of the more than 100 female convicts on board, transported for their crimes to South Australia.
The director has also designed the clever set, with the captain’s (remote) cabin high on one side above the stage, and the sergeant’s quarters mirroring it at the other side of the cramped and lightless prisoners’ quarters. The audience is brought into the action with extensions of the ship’s ropes around the auditorium.
There isn’t anyone in this play who comes out well. The women are brutalised by their lives and their treatment, the men venal and self-seeking, chiefly motivated by money.
As the captain and his sergeant discuss ways of increasing income by speeding the voyage (not stopping at the Cape to take on fresh water and food) and getting the women to make shirts to sell in Sydney, the doctor drinks to hide his guilt and the ship’s boy discovers that sex and cruelty are in his grasp.
There are excellent performances from the women, six souls chained in squalor who discover the hard way that petty fights and jealousies must give way to comradeship against the few but powerful men on board.
A problem with predominantly female casts is that voices get locked onto an accelerating high and shrill level and audibility suffers. Once that had settled and the speech rhythms became familiar, the full horror of each of their stories emerged.
Samantha Luckham’s Nancy, a “political prisoner” who had been arrested supporting her boyfriend at a demonstration, takes the most risks and suffers the most violent consequences.
Sophie Townsend’s pathetic Pitty captures the terror of the misfit, and Elisabeth Roberts’ card sharping Winnie is a natural leader.
With Sally Marshall’s Madge, Eleanor Boag’s Sarah and Marie-Claire Wood’s Charlotte, these are a group of women who become unsentimentally interdependent over the six months at sea, facing the sun of Australia with more dread than hope.
The women’s parts are both more fully written, and apparently more carefully rehearsed, than the men’s.
Colin Hayman’s Captain talks about money and takes his magnificent jacket on and off, while the Sergeant (James Paterson) is a caricature swaggering bully. Anthony von Roretz’s sonorous voice is a welcome counterpoint, and his impotent concern for the welfare of the women is evident. Teddy Woolgrove, already an experienced Youth Theatre member, is the only fleshed-out male character and his transformation from timid boy is well done.
Female Transports is on stage until Saturday 16th April.