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The Hatpin
The Blue Elephant Theatre
1st November 2012


The ensemble

Photography © Adam Trigg

There are a lot of strong personalities in showbusiness, so when a production involves a list of people as long as your arm, you can be forgiven for fearing it's going to be another case of two many cooks. You know the type of pieces, we've all sat through one at some point. However, this isn't the case with The Blue Elephant Theatre's first co-production with Greenwich Theatre, The Hatpin, by Aussies Peter Rutherford and James Millar. With their first European performance, by the rather large company Lazarus Theatre, such fears are wholly misplaced. This collaboration by a group of talented individuals results in a deeply emotional musical, which deserves to sell out during its 3½ week run.

Set in the late 19th century, we meet young mother Amber Murray (Gemma Beaton), who dotes on her newborn son Horace, but who has already made the heartbreaking decision to place him into temporary care, because she cannot afford a roof over both their heads and keeping him safe and warm takes priority. After advertising for a foster family to look after him, she is put in touch with the Makins, who not only have children of their own, but who are apparently experienced foster carers as well. Amber agrees to pay a fortnightly fee and resolves to find work, sort herself out and then reclaim her baby.

Initially, Agatha and Charles Makin (Kate Playdon and Robin Holden) seem respectable, if a little new money. But Agatha soon reveals herself to be a callous and chillingly creepy Trunchbull-esque figure, who resents her biological daughter Clara (Emma White) and merely tolerates her week-willed husband Charles, for the benefits that marriage gives her.

Kate Playdon, Robin Holden and Emma White as the Makin family

Photography © Adam Trigg

Although it takes place in Sydney, The Hatpin feels like a story that could have happened closer to home. Indeed, although Katie Allison speaks with an unmistakeable Australian accent when playing young mother Marianne Leonard, Eleanor Sandars plays childless shopkeeper Harriet Piper as a feisty Cockney woman. The eerie smoke effect prevalent for most of the performance, opening up the stage and creating a cavernous feel, could just as easily be a London peasouper as it is an Australian fog.

Location is relatively unimportant though, the focus of this story is on motherhood. We see the close, natural bond between Amber and her newborn, the lack of connection between Agatha and her teenage daughter Clara and the instant, created bond between Amber and Harriet, with the older woman taking the desperate young mother under her wing and supporting her unconditionally.

It is this primeval kinship that makes the musical so powerful - it evokes our own experiences of mothering and being mothered - making Agatha's absolute rejection of this basic human trait so shocking. The plot is even more harrowing when you discover how closely it is based on real life. A few individuals have been dropped, some details fast-forwarded, but it remains that there was an Amber, there was a Horace, he did go stay with the Makin family and he was never returned to her.

The foreshadowing is deliciously subtle, with particular credit to Ricky Dukes' direction. Initially Clara seems slightly peculiar, written into the script primarily to get laughs but with every scene her character is further layered until her performance explodes into a phenomenal crescendo of emotion. As her character's actions mimic those of her mother and stepfather, White is both heartbreaking and comical at the same time.

Very few props are used, with the stage dressed only with the smoke and a circle painted onto the floor. Dukes blocks the actions and empties the stage as appropriate, using the actors's bodies to represent objects and feelings. It's only with hindsight you notice Amber didn't physically knock on the doors of Marianne, Rebecca Rigby (Elise Fabris) or Minnie Davies (Michaela Cartmell), you only believed in the moment she was running back and forth between three houses. The direction is very clever indeed.

The ensemble

Photography © Adam Trigg

The entire cast deliver strong performances, making it difficult to single out any individual, but recognition should go to Sandars, whose voice is beautifully melodic and whose portayal of Harriet is packed with the most variety. Essentially, she plays a mother bear, fiercely protective of anyone who threatens who she deems to be her cub, but tender and loyal to her charge. She delivers both serious and funny lines with impact and not once falters. Sander's duets with Beaton, in particular Bad Fruit and Sail, highlight her stunning vocal ability.

The music and lyrics, reminiscent of Sondheim, are unsettlingly catchy, in particular Digging Up and Natural Causes will stay in your head long after the production, despite their sinister messages. Each tune is so engaging that it's easy to forget about the role of musical director Aaron Clingham, who not only has coached the ensemble to this degree of perfection, who is also sat offstage effortlessly knocking out each song on the piano. Often, when music is this captivating, you become so lost in the emotion, you only remember there's a piano player involved when you hear a mistake and here, there were none.

The Hatpin draws attention to a dark chapter of Australia's history, but more movingly, it is a tale that shows the depths of a mother's love. It will both entertain you and touch you - take a friend, no, take a group of friends, tell everyone you know - and also take the hankies.

Following previews on 30th and 31st October 2012, The Hatpin ran from 1st November until 24th November 2012.

Nearest tube station: Oval (Northern)

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