The subject of political refugees is much in the news and often a hotly debated topic. Wyong Drama Group’s latest production is a timely reminder that this is not the first time in our history that Australia has been seen as a land of hope and refuge by families fleeing from the turmoil and aftermath of war. A historical note in the programme recalls that “170,000 came to Australia between 1947 and 1953, living at first in migrant hostels then finding work in cities or on projects like the Snowy Mountains Scheme.” Sepia Secrets is the story of one such family.
Maxim is a young Russian dissident fleeing before the inevitable invasion of Dubrovnik. Leaving behind his mother and newly-wedded wife, he joins the British army in the hope of finding eventual passage to a new life in a far country, for himself and his bride. He is stationed in a small Austrian village where he becomes a local hero when he saves the life of a young boy injured in an explosion. Maxim’s story is seen through the eyes of his son, Rob, and through the recollections of the people Rob meets when, years later, he travels through Europe on a journey of self-discovery. He learns about the wife Maxim was forced to leave in Dubrovnik, and the young woman he befriends in Austria. They are very different women: one is worldly and sophisticated; the other is from a simple and homely background, yet she lives with a dark and painful secret. While one clings stubbornly to a rapidly fading past, the other is almost fearful of imagining a better future, and these two come to represent the competing claims on Maxim’s torn heart. And we wonder which of them is the mother whose living spirit haunts the drama, and her son’s thoughts, from her sick bed in Australia as Rob undertakes this final quest on her behalf. This is a moving and beautifully crafted tale in which past and present blend, telling two parallel stories that eventually come together in a seamless whole.
Sepia Secrets was penned by resident playwright Andy Kabanoff, a retired English and drama teacher with many years of theatrical experience as actor, director and writer. This is his eighth publicly performed play. It is semi-autobiographical, partly based on the experience of his parents (to whose memory Andy has dedicated this premiere performance), but the turmoil and displacement of war are familiar themes to many Australians, past and present. Indeed, several senior members of the cast are from migrant families, and their backgrounds add an extra level of sensitivity to their performances.
There are also some faces among the cast that are new to me. Some have years of theatrical experience while others are making their stage debut but I couldn’t tell which without checking the programme. All portray their characters capably and sincerely and I look forward to seeing more of them in the future. Andy has risen admirably to the weighty challenge of co-directing and acting in his own play, giving a gently natural, convincing and engaging performance as Rob.
His co-director is Pollyanna Forshaw who has previously staged memorable productions of Jesus Christ Superstar, Eurobeat, and ‘Allo ‘Allo, and they are assisted by the talents of production designer Joshua Maxwell, who is known for WDG’s productions of Sweet Road and Two Weeks with the Queen and for the recent Tantrum Youth Arts’ projects, Trailer and Periphery. This is a play where the technical effects are an integral part of creating the story, and the crew are to be congratulated on their faultless handling of over 400 sound and lighting cues. The transition between scenes from past and present flow easily, while the dialogue combines with projected film and photography to evoke the atmosphere, scene and history of wartime Europe bestowing an almost filmic quality on the unfolding drama.
I was delighted by every aspect of this play and extend my kudos to the full ensemble. Wyong Drama Group has always benefitted from an exceptional pool of talent and Andy’s skills are a significant addition. I look forward to seeing the group performing more of his plays in the future.
Sepia Secrets closes this weekend but tickets are still available online at wyongdramagroup.com.au or by calling 1300 665 600. In recognition of the appeal this play will have for students of drama, history or social studies, WDG are offering a “student rush” special tonight, Wednesday 6th July, for one night only – tickets are just $10 at the door for students. Normal rates apply Friday and Saturday.
The group’s next production, Steel Magnolias, is already in rehearsal and will open at The Grove Theatre in August. For more details, please click on WDG’s next production: