As a convoy of ships steamed their way to war in 1914, they passed a dreamy girl named Fay Howe (Daisy Coyle), also known as the Lighthouse Girl, safely ensconced in a lighthouse off the shore of Albany. Just as the ships became a watery entrapment for over 30,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers about to meet their fate, Fay too was trapped on the windswept and isolated Breaksea Island.
Fay filled her long days and nights flag-chatting using the Semaphore Alphabet and transcribing Morse code messages for the soldiers stationed offshore. Like most teenage girls of any era on the cusp of womanhood, Fay was full of romantic notions, and while becoming the soldiers’ lifeline to their loved ones, she also found love with Charlie (Giuseppe Rotondella), a jackeroo turned soldier in the Light Horse Brigade. Charlie joined the regiment with childhood pal Jim Finch (Will McNeill), much to the concern of Jim’s sister Alice (Alex Malone).
Based on author Dianne Wolfer’s novels Lighthouse Girl and Light Horse Boy, the Black Swan Theatre Company’s production of the Lighthouse Girl was eloquently translated to the stage by playwright Hellie Turner. “Writing the first draft of the play was a ‘gruelling joy’ … gruelling because of the need to be immersed in the carnage of war … a joy because constantly I was reminded of the remarkable resilience of the human spirit. It was a challenge which I utterly enjoyed, in the way one enjoys piecing together a jigsaw.”
As if the isolation of Breaksea Island wasn’t already challenging enough due to its harsh environment, limited communications, scarce food supplies and not to mention the steep gradient best tackled by donkey, Fay battled her own turmoil after the loss of her mother while dealing with an over-protective father, Robert (Benj D’Addario). Robert was a dedicated lighthouse keeper and worked alongside Joe (Murray Dowsett) who was a wealth of wisdom in the ways of the world and guided more than just the passing ships.
A particularly touching and humorous moment occurs when Robert discovers the blossoming romance between Fay and Charlie. He demands to know about the boy she’s communicating with in much the same way modern day parents worry over how their daughters are using their mobile phones.
Fay touched the hearts of more than one soldier and received numerous postcards from the Middle East from the soldiers addressed to “The little girl on Breaksea Island;” dismaying to the 15-year-old Fay.
Other outside influences also concern Robert with the arrival of cinematographer Frank (Nick Maclaine) who arrived bearing gifts while filming the soldiers’ last days on Australian soil.
The Lighthouse Girl poignantly premiered in Albany, which was the last Australian connection for many of the soldiers who never returned. Both the books and the play depict an important time in Australian history, as well as Albany’s involvement in WWI. By telling just one of the thousands of stories about the ravages of war, it’s a tale of humanity, courage, love and friendship set against the exotic backdrop of Egypt, the doomed shores of Gallipoli Cove and the wild coast of the Great Southern region.
The Lighthouse Girls plays 28 April – 17 May in the Studio Underground at the Heath Ledger Theatre. www.bsstc.com.au. Spoiler alert: bring tissues!