THROUGH THESE LINES
Presented by: Turnaround Productions and No Rest for the Wicked
Venue: Fort Scratchley, Newcastle (49291977)
Season: Ends August 5
THE casemate (storage room) beneath the gun emplacements at Fort Scratchley is an excellent venue for this story about Australian nurses in World War I.
The audience sits around three sides of the performance space, with the all-concrete structure helping the makeshift service hospitals and other settings to come very much to life.
The story's central character is Sister Florence Whiting, a nurse who is first seen on a troopship travelling from Australia to Egypt late in 1914. Like other nurses, she flirts with on-board soldiers, and it's a sign of the times that the nurses are eventually ordered to restrict themselves to their quarters but the military men are allowed to continue having freedom of movement around the ship.
Florence becomes romantically involved with a lieutenant, William Davies, while they are stationed in Cairo, and they keep encountering each other, with the venues including a hospital ship near Gallipoli, Lemnos in Greece and the Western Front in France.
Writer Cheryl Ward (who also plays a sympathetic but rule-abiding matron), director Mary-Anne Gifford and the actors bring out the hopes, dreams and realities faced by the people in the story.
The rigour of battlefront lives is contrasted with the joyous news of marriages and births in letters from relatives in Australia.
Kate Skinner, who plays Florence, is the only actor in a single role, with the multiple roles played by the others ranging from Gareth Rickard's constantly reappearing Davies to a soldier who is briefly seen standing in a doorway singing in the hope of catching the attention of the nurses.
The other actors, who include Rebecca Barbera, Gary Clementson and Christian Charisiou, are excellently clad in the uniforms designed by Ali Whiteford, with an early comment by a soldier to Florence that "you look lovely with a handkerchief on your head" amusingly showing his unfamiliarity with the clothes worn by nurses.
Indeed, well-placed humour is a feature of Ward's script, with a matron's list of the things in Cairo that have led to soldiers being wounded including "climbing the pyramids", something Ward discovered when researching her story.
The more serious side of battlefront life is shown in moments such as one in which a nurse talks about the problems of makeshift hospital facilities including lice and a scorpion. And that complaint rings true given the use of well-worn stretchers and other period props, such as a field medical box.
The production's most disappointing feature is its flat ending. Still, that is probably more realistic than a melodramatic finish or a piece of Hollywood gloss.
Civic Theatre's management deserves applause for agreeing to its performance in such an appropriate place.