Lane Hinchcliffe (Composer and Writer) has been working on The Front for 13 years. This concert presentation is the culmination of a few workshops, ongoing development over recent years and is based on the stories of Australian soldiers and nurses involved in the Battle of Fromelles. The timing of this presentation is apt given the recent centenary commemorations of World War I and the various representations of ANZACs in TV, Film and other Art forms.
As this work is still in development, it is very difficult to review. This production was strongly directed by Andy Packer and featured a small orchestra, led by Matthew Carey (who is also Musical Director). The cast of ten (including Hinchcliffe) were costumed and sat on a line of chairs, standing to act out scenes as needed. After only 7 days rehearsal, the cast were understandably still on book for sections of the show but this did not detract from the action and was well-managed.
Every cast member was strong, featuring some well-respected local performers plus a few imports from interstate. Catherine Campbell breathed confidence and some much-needed humour into her role of Matron. Cameron MacDonald as Bert (an Australian born son of German immigrants) sang beautifully and really shone in the stand-out number, Miracles. Emily Morris as Gertie was obviously comfortable in the role as the only cast member to have performed in most (if not all) iterations of the production to date. She sings beautifully and is well suited to the young nurse and love interest of rebellious soldier, Keith (Michael Whalley).
Everyone was a little cautious to begin the show with most relaxing into their roles over the 90 minutes of two acts. It is a shame that this cast were not able to rehearse more extensively and develop the characters beyond the dimensions offered on the page, with a standard rehearsal period there is no doubt that these characters would be a strong cross-section of the young men and women on which the story is based.
Hinchcliffe’s work (with collaboration from Amelia Ryan and Rob George) is progressing and the premise is strong, with great potential. It is impossible to watch this production and not compare the structural similarities to Les Miserables. Rag-tag bunch fighting a less famous battle, young love in the face of danger, the mourning of brothers at arms, and a similar style of music and arrangements that echo many elements of the French revolutionary hit.
Despite these comparisons, this is an original Australian musical with its own voice and its own historic significance. It would be fantastic if the opportunity were made available to support further development of the piece, particularly to assist Hinchcliffe with structure; currently the show is set in both 1916 and 2010, which suffered from incongruity in the concert setting. Having someone who has musical composition insight/experience collaborate with Hinchcliffe to pull apart some of the numbers and put them back together, and edit some of the repetition and seemingly derivative moments would be of huge benefit.
Alas, Arts funding is not what it could be but hopefully this sort of work, with strong ties to Australia’s heritage and shining moments of engaging and moving music and storytelling will attract the support it needs.
The audible sobbing and rousing standing ovation from the audience demonstrated that the people want to hear these songs and have a connection to this story. I’m looking forward to seeing this truly Aussie musical continue to grow and hope there will be a fully staged and realised version in the not too distant future.