In the running history of UMMTA shows, The Hatpin stands alone, quite unique for being both Australian and somewhat contemporary (written in 2008, with revisions as recent as 2011). It is distinctive for its predominantly female lead-cast, and its deliberate focus on the experiences of these women.
Written by James Millar and Peter Rutherford, The Hatpin follows the story of Amber Murray, played by Eleanor Davey. Set in Redfern, Sydney in 1892, we are flung into a world where female sexual autonomy and the basic right to social welfare are virtually or completely non-existent. A destitute single-mother, Amber is desperate to provide for her infant son, Horace Murray. Horace is an illegitimate child, one born from sexual assault – a fact that never stops colouring the play.
The production interspersed larger ensemble ‘Sydney town-life’ scenes amidst moments focused on the lead characters, strategically counteracting the sometimes stifling atmosphere of the narrative. Even knowing that I was watching UMMTA did little to prepare me for the crisp synchronisation and glorious harmonies of the ensemble cast. While static, their collective poise had a steady buzz to it. You could feel the iron focus of a cast on their A-game; their attention to detail, to mannerism, to simply interacting to and reacting off of each other.
I felt that some, if not a good handful, of the solo songs treated their subject matter unsubtly, though in accordance with the play-script. They were, however, sung beautifully and I could see that the direction was actively trying to avoid turning the songs into anything soppy. Though Emma Gordon-Smith’s emotional performance alone made the show for me, Grace Haslinghouse’s performance of Agatha Makin was as superbly strong as her voice and, as Clara Makin, Bella Wiemers’ singing stopped me from thinking, it was so warm and clear.
I noticed early on that the show revolved around how Amber’s story intersected with other women in her life. On this point, Stage-Manager Sian Morrison, stressed that the play was ‘all about the female’s journey’, which Assistant Director Aram Geleris also reiterated a little later: ‘you don’t need men to tell a story about women’. This is a point that obviously goes without saying, but given the apparent scarcity of female centred musicals in the canon, it might just bear repeating.
Director Jordan Peters was very clear about stressing the primacy of class segregation in this play, and how that underpins the sexism. He noted, in the early ensemble song about work, that upper-class women leaned into their ‘comparative privilege’ over disadvantaged women like Amber. But Peters also noted that ‘the play isn’t perfect’. For all of its refreshing feminist values, there were times where I could tell that it was written by men. Namely, when Amber poses a pointed, and genuinely shocked, question to Harriet: ‘You don’t like it when men fancy you?’ It was not only clumsily heteronormative, but downright unbelievable coming from Amber, who has been through harrowing ordeals with men in the past.
A story of female friendship, strongly preoccupied with the experiences of women and the pervasive intersection between patriarchy and classism, The Hatpin is not just a well-executed production, but an importantly relevant one. You could go see the show for Eleanor Davey’s heartfelt lead performance alone, but this is a musical offering so much more than entertainment.
UMMTA’s The Hatpin ran from September 16th – 24th in the Union Theatre.