Confession time. I was at opening night of Miss Westralia on Thursday evening and despite the fact that I was churning out up to three reviews a night during Fringe and I’ve had more than a few distractions (hubby arriving back from Canberra, website issues, daughter with year 12 exams) it was the pure context of the production that had me stalling on this particular review.
I needed a little time to collect my thoughts. I craved time to research and digest. I wanted time to see a second show to cement my feelings because I walked away from this show with all the feels and far too many questions.
Have we really come this far and not progressed that much at all? Did we really have such a progressive first Miss Australia who hailed from a sheep station in WA of all places? Why didn’t I know this story?
Miss Westralia is the premiere production of Blonde Moment Theatre, a company that gives a platform to female voices on stage and new Australian works. The Blue Room Theatre is the literal platform on this occasion and knowing the intimate venue logistics, I wasn’t sure what to expect heading into this show.
Sitting off to the side in the front row I must confess, I often felt a little too close to the action. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For starters, there is no audience participation. My position did, however, afford me the privilege of glimpses of Christopher Milbourn on the keys, live in the next room. An incredible performance in itself. The music, so very polished you could be forgiven for thinking the entire score was pre-recorded. And what a score. Composed by the award-winning team behind On Hold-A Musical (Best Aussie Short: Flickerfest, Dendy Top 10: Sydney Film Fest).
Based on the life of a lesser-known national heroine, Miss Westralia showcases the story of the very first Miss Australia, Beryl Mills. Set in 1926, the show follows Beryl’s journey from a Geraldton sheep station to the United States where she embarks on a promotional tour chaperoned by Frank Packer and her mother.
I wasn’t aware of Beryl Mills or the back story of how Miss Australia launched in 1926 before going in. I was certainly taken aback with regards to the politics that were at play back then and how so much has changed in that time but ultimately at the same time, there are a lot of similarities and not nearly enough progress. It means the context is confrontingly relevant on so many levels.
Country girl Beryl and her mother, to an extent, were certainly naïve going in but you only have to listen to Beryl’s speech on returning to Australia, which is played at the end of the production, now fully informed thanks to the research that went into this production… which allows you to hear between the lines, to know Beryl was one progressive and impressive female. For her time and ours.
Interestingly, the authors premiered a more concise Miss Westralia musical with the same characters and I believe general concept at FringeWorld in 2018, returning fully loaded in the research department with this full-length show having been awarded a research grant that would do Geraldton and Miss Beryl Mills proud.
The set is simplistic but effective, enabling you to be transported from country WA to the glitz and glamour of the United States in the 1920s right before your eyes with the flick of a panel or three of corrugated iron. The character changes were much the same, quick and effective, with four actors playing a multitude of characters. All characters were convincing in their own right but I did take a bit of convincing when Miss Victoria then appears as Beryl’s mother. My issue was more with her youthful appearance rather than the performance itself because you could not fault the performance. Something an old lady wig might have remedied easily.
For me, this wasn’t a pitch-perfect production at all times but interestingly it really didn’t need to be. I found the pitch matched the character personas perfectly bringing an element of vulnerability or strength to the character and story when needed which is exactly how it should be in a musical. Big or small.
Speaking big or small. I can’t help thinking that the rushed 10-minute intermission, ¾ of the way through the 100-minute set, wasn’t entirely warranted from an audience comfort perspective, although I’m told logistic wise for the show, it was. Still, it was rushed and oddly placed with barely enough time to get up out of your seat before having to return.
I also would have loved to have seen the more concise Fringe show and compared the two. I honestly believe with a little more spit and lyrical polish this extended and more researched version of Miss Westralia is destined for a much bigger stage and a national audience. Time will tell.
Time isn’t exactly on my side at the moment but I’m hoping to clear my schedule and try to make a second show for the meet the artist event on May 29. You should join me! We can debrief at The Blue Room Theatre bar afterwards because this is one of those confronting and surprisingly relevant productions that is sure to get you talking.
4 WORTH CASING STARS OUT OF 5!
Now showing until May 8