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Keeping the mystery intact

From Chichester ObserverDirector Bob Tomson certainly doesn't want you to set out to solve the mystery of the disappearing girls at the centre of Picnic At Hanging Rock.

Bob is directing West Sussex County Youth Theatre's world premiere production of a new musical version of the story which was famously a novel and then a film.

The piece tells the story of three students and a schoolteacher who disappear on an excursion to Hanging Rock, in Victoria, Australia, on Valentine's Day. 1900.

And for Bob, the whole point of the piece is to leave the mystery hanging - a point on which Bob is taking his cue from the literary agent to whom novelist Joan Lindsay took her book.

"Joan Lindsay had had a couple of local hits. She presented Picnic At Hanging Rock to her literary agent who said 'It's very good... Do you trust me? I want to make one change.' The literary agent said 'Don't publish the final chapter because the final chapter explains the mystery'."

The point is that the explanation damages the myth that the book creates. Consequently, though Bob has seen that final chapter, he doesn't remotely touch on it in the adaptation he is creating with the youth theatre.

Bob isn't keen to spell out what that final chapter contains. Suffice to say that Lindsay was in line with a number of writers such as Priestley. Wells and Shaw - writers who explored the possibility of time in parallel. And that's not somewhere this production will be going - a production which has brought its own saga with it.

Bob has spent just under three years tracking down the ownership of the novel, negotiating the rights to it and bringing the new version to the stage.. a truly labyrinthine task.

"It was during the Da Vinci Code launch and I was thinking 'I have got my own DA Vinci Code here'!"

But persistence was the name of the game, based on Bob's huge commitment to youth theatre.

"I was always very grateful for the leg-up into the profession that youth theatre gave me, and I always figured that I would honour that debt. Over many years you will have seen that youth theatre production all share a great freshness and vitality. I have dutifully done all sorts of productions and commissioned new productions.

"But I have been guilty, like a lot of us, of neglecting the fact that wherever you are doing youth theatre, two-thirds of the membership of youth theatres are girls - and yet the majority of pieces commissioned are male dominated."

These thoughts merged with Bob's long-standing fascination with the Picnic At Hanging Rock story - a story with a wealth of good parts for the girls. The result will be seen at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester.

"The piece is a faithful rendition of the novel. It embraces far more of the novel than the film ever did. The film was very selective, just looking at pretty girls in pretty summer dresses, but in the book there are lots more plots and subplots of mystery and betrayal, the criminal investigation, theories and heartbreaks.

"It is like a pebble that has been lobbed in a still lake and the ripples go out and out and out as everyone is touched by what in the end is a tragedy."

Joan Lindsay's novel has been adapted by Robert Johns with music and lyrics by Brian Spence. It runs at Chichester's Minerva Theatre until Saturday, March 3.

The production features a cast of more than 35 girls, governesses, domestic staff, local officials, police, press, society women and interested young men.

This article was written by Phil Hewitt of the Chichester Observer on 1st March 2007

Morley Enterprises

Page Last Updated: 4th March 2010

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