Review: LAMBS at Goodwood Theatre And Studios

The tragedy of young men, lost to war.

By: Jun. 17, 2024
Review: LAMBS at Goodwood Theatre And Studios
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Reviewed by Ewart Shaw Saturday 15th June 2024.

Lambs is a new Australian play performed at the Goodwood Institute by Free Agents, a new local youth theatre company. This alone would make it worth the tram trip. Sean Riley and his company have created something quite remarkable, poignant, and personal.

The idea of the sacrificial lamb is found in the Old Testament. Isaiah 50.37 refers to ‘lambs to the slaughter’. Eric Bogle quotes those words, singing of Gallipoli. For thousands of years, they have been the ideal of sacrifice. Priests and shepherds lead them to the altar. Generals send them to the trenches.

Lambs is the story of a bunch of schoolboys from the village of St Jude, somewhere in Australia. Yes, it’s named for that St Jude, the patron saint of desperate situations and lost causes. Word comes to them of war overseas, and the joys of enlisting, going off with your mates, armed with rifles, as you hunted in the back paddocks. These young people, with no access to newspapers, radio, or television, had no idea of what they were letting themselves in for. It was an heroic adventure that left many dead and the survivors as good as dead. The boys, too young to enlist officially, lie about their ages.

The crisis, the clash between heroic fantasy and ugly reality, is there from the start. They are rehearsing Henry the Fifth at school. ‘Once more into the breach dear friends once more’, the actor declaims, as a mutilated soldier crawls to safety. The battleground of a fictional Agincourt and the killing fields of France coexist in stage time, and the story, the stories, move backwards and forwards in time and space.

The play is credited to Sean Riley, but he makes it clear in his notes that, essentially, the cast created their own stories and he shaped them into a play. It explains the commitment and their sense of ownership demonstrated by the cast. As a director, he has given them the support they need as young performers, and has shaped the lives and deaths with care.

There’s a family of Lambs, theatre cousins to the Lambs in the play, Cloudstreet, and we follow brothers Stanley and Philip, through the war, through their separation, their suffering and their reconciliation, to a moment so touching and unexpected, it was a fine way to end the play. We also see the family they left back home, their mother Clara, a tailor, their sister Mary, and the children Clara has gathered around her.

It’s not just about them. We follow their mates. There are adults. Mr Winter is their teacher and, rather than declare himself a conscientious objector, he joins up to keep an eye on the lads. There’s a very strong sense that he’s in love with their mother. Why else would he be getting her to make his suits? His story is a sad one. He returns home from the war and, as he pushes open the front door of his house, he steps on a rusty nail, contracts blood poisoning, and is found dead on his kitchen floor ten days later. Snapshots of action follow the lives of the boys from St Jude. It is a dark play, relieved by a few flashes of humour. One of the soldiers was at Gallipoli and tells of the time he mooned a Turkish rifleman, overbalanced, and slid all the way down the hillside.

The creative crew is impressive. Ewen McBryde is the assistant director, Kim Liotta the designer, Doctor Oscillator has created an allusive soundscape, with the bellbirds in the distance, and Nic Mollison’s lighting is complemented by the video design of Eadan and Justin McGuinness and Little Fire Film.

The final performance of four played to a packed house. A youth theatre company, after all, comes equipped with family. It would probably have been too great an expectation that these young performers could have sustained a longer run. Impossible also, I think, for a different cast to bring the same level of identity to the roles on stage.

The First World War has so many stories to explore. We’ve had Gallipoli, the movie. You might recall Ben Francis as Private Peaceful, based on the Morpurgo book, at the Bakehouse. Sean Riley’s memorable Beautiful Words is being studied on the high school syllabus, but should be staged again.


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