Theatre Review: Daughters of Heaven

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11th December 2010
Duke’s Theatre

Dir. Jacqueline Baker

Having been involved in amateur theatrics, I wander into any such production jaded by the standard preconception of non-professional productions being pathetic. Technical failures, including songs that are mainly screeching feedback due to poor microphones and vocal talent, and performance failures, like lisping villains and 80-year-old men playing ‘dashing heroes’ have accompanied the decline in quality, funding, audiences and members. High school performances get a similar press, being run by teachers and performed by students who have work to be getting on with. If school productions are set back by the work/play balance, then surely a university production has no chance of vaulting the bar set by professionals?

Thankfully, this isn’t true, as LUTG’s production of Michelanne Forster’s ‘Daughters of Heaven’ proves in the most explosive manner possible.

‘Daughters of Heaven’ dates from 1991, inspired by events in 1954 New Zealand. If you haven’t brushed up on your sensational murder stories, the play is totally derived from the Parker-Hulme murder, when two teenagers, Juliet Hulme (Leigh Coghill) and Pauline Parker (Jade Beaty) murdered Pauline’s mother, Honora (Louise Turner). A crime of passion, the girls saw Parker’s mother as the barricade that prevented them from fully relishing in their affair. One could easily assume that any play which entails graphic murder and lesbian ‘action’ (and believe me, it was in abundance) is going to be a trashy romp. However, given that it is based on real events, it quickly becomes apparent that this tale of head-stoving and spiritual devotion between two teenagers of the same sex is more harrowing than prurient.

Good staging is needed to draw people into this story in a way that elicits empathy and understanding, and not tabloid-style knee-jerk moral outrage. How fitting it is, then, that the play takes place on the traverse stage of the Duke’s Theatre. A mere three rows of seating and barely six inches between the front row and the performance space drags one kicking and screaming into the claustrophobia and warped insanity of our heroes. Jade Beaty delivers an outstanding performance infinitely more intimidating than her tiny frame and adorable face might suggest. Perhaps that’s just as well, because the sudden switches that the lovers make between the enactment of childish fantasies, sexual embraces and murderous glee must be radiated in the most frightening way possible, or it’s a parody. Beaty meets her match in Leigh Coghill, whose cold, amoral portrayal of Juliet leaves the audience uncertain as to which of the pair is the mastermind. Parker’s worship of Hulme during their fantasy role-playing suggests Hulme’s dominance, but Parker is instrumental in deciding to murder her mother.

Most of the cast play two characters. Whether Baker borrowed this idea from a production she saw in New Zealand, or if it’s her own idea, I do not know, but it’s a help and a hindrance. Louise Turner plays Parker’s mother and an unsympathetic prison matron. Both characters are hated by the teenagers for keeping them apart, so the physical resemblance between the mother and the matron heightens the backfiring of the murder. They are still kept apart, but by someone else, and such warped minds cannot differentiate between anyone who threatens their relationship.

However, being amateurs, some simply can’t do two characters the justice they require. Josh Coates plays Herbert Rieper (although a slight adjustment to his admittedly beautiful hair might increase his resemblance to an older man) far better than he plays defense lawyer Gresson, who comes across as underdeveloped and stereotypically pompous. On the other hand, the character of Sergeant Tate is too underused to justify the mighty George Bach, who is deliciously oppressive as Mr Brown. It merely draws attention to the odd fact that Tate is just a briefly seen man who is identical to Brown.

The strongest parallel is between the relationship of the teenagers and the pairing of another notorious pair of young killers, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. With this awful case still reported on, this play’s most important lesson is that, as Brown tells us in act one, one must look at such a case unbound by the shackles of emotive rhetoric. This is perhaps an ironic command to make, given that during the court case in act two, Brown attempts to convince Justice Adams (Adam Bates) that homosexuality is a mental illness and successfully has the lovers imprisoned. We see the interfering nature of Parker’s mother and the true extent of the obsession that the girls have with one another, along with Hulme‘s family being disrupted by Hilda‘s affair with Perry (Luke Weeks). Because of this, while we can’t justify such a crime, we can at least begin to understand that some people are genuinely disturbed and mentally ill, not just evil.

In summary, ‘Daughters of Heaven’ is hugely entertaining, but also poignant and thought-provoking. The cast carry us on the journey with skill and extremely sparse faltering. It is unfortunate this play only ran for three performances.

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