The largely autobiographical play is considered one of Hewett's most important. Combining some of Hewett's own poetry with a heady cocktail of vaudeville, musical theatre and panoramic social realism, The Chapel Perilous has rarely been performed professionally in Australia due to its large cast and equally large ambition.
But with judicious direction and some bravura performances from a fine ensemble cast, director Suzanne Chaundy has here brought it into stunning relief. The result is a triumph of invention and stage-craft which helps to place the shockingly great talent of Hewett into a new perspective. Just as importantly, it is also hugely entertaining.
The Chapel Perilous tells the story of Sally Banner, a young poet from regional West Australia who we first meet as a free-spirited Catholic school girl. The play's next two hours chart Sally's coming-of-age and subsequent brutal disillusionment as a communist, feminist, bohemian, wife, mother and writer. In the process, the play depicts a changing Australia with a scope that is novelistic and a spirit that is almost Elizabethan. Music plays an integral role in Hewett's script; as well as Sally's many songs, Hewett also imagined the play to include a singing chorus of as many as 30.
The character of Sally Banner is rightly regarded as one of the great female roles of the Australian theatre. Enter Zoe Ellerton-Ashley, an emerging talent whose whole-hearted performance in this most difficult of lead roles announces a large new talent of her own. Ellerton-Ashley is only a couple years out of VCA but commands the intimate La Mama space for practically the entire play, effortlessly conveying Banner's fiery sensuality and steely political resolve. She is assisted by a wonderful supporting cast including the extremely funny Matt Crosby, who just about steals the show as a camp Canon; Jane Bayly, Glenn Perry and Grant Cartwright also impress.
Because The Chapel Perilous is in many senses a musical, a special note of acclaim must be accorded to Carolyn Connors, who has updated much of the old music and scored many new compositions herself, played with charmingly on the old La Mama piano by Judy Gunson.
But the play belongs to Zoe Ellerton-Ashley, whose strength and application succeeds in animating, through the character of Sally Banner, the larger-than-life talent of Dorothy Hewett.
La Mama presents
The Chapel Perilous
by Dorothy Hewett
Venue: La Mama | 205 Faraday Street, Carlton
Dates: Wed August 1 - Sun August 19
Times: Weds and Suns @ 6.30pm, Thurs to Sats @ 8pm
Matinees: Weds Aug 8 @ 11am, Aug 15 @ 1pm; Thurs Aug 2, Aug 9, Aug 16 all @ 1pm
Bookings: 9347 6142