Picnic at Hanging Rock

As titles go, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a fine conflation of the innocent and disturbing, although the cultural impact of Joan Lindsay’s novel is arguably more down to Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation than the book itself. Focused on a 1900 Valentine’s Day outing by some privately-educated schoolgirls into the Australian Outback, during which they and a teacher vanish without a trace, both novel and film deliberately play with ideas of truth versus fiction, in the process creating a sense of the uncanny that’s genuinely disturbing.

The ensemble cast are genuinely impressive, though Elizabeth Nabben and Amber McMahon are particularly memorable

A half century on from the book’s publication (and three decades after Laura Annawyn Shamas’s 1987 stage version), Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre Company provides Scottish audiences with an opportunity to see playwright Tom Wright’s new telling of the story, directed by Matthew Lutton for Melbourne-based Malthouse Theatre and the Black Swan State Theatre Company. Significantly, the word here is “telling”—both the initial and final scenes are essentially monologues—shared among the cast of five women, dressed as schoolgirls and slowly making their way, step by step, towards the front of the stage. This may well be blatant “info-dumping” of the first order, but the energy, urgency and intensity of the performance—all present tense, leaping from one member of the ensemble to another—immediately holds the attention.

Admittedly, there’s not much else that can; the set primarily consists of an otherwise empty space defined by plain, grey-wood panelled walls, with only Paul Jackson’s lighting, and J David Franzke’s increasingly repetitive soundscape to suggest the contrasts between these Victorian young ladies, in their stiff lace and corsets, and the ancient landscape into which they venture. Yet it’s generally enough; there are few theatrical achievements more praiseworthy than the ability to transform such an empty space inside an audience’s imagination.

But there are also distractions, not least how cast members and props can effortlessly appear and disappear during the numerous black-outs which differentiate “chapters” in the story—the titles of which are displayed portentously above the stage. Alas, echoing the “all that is solid melts into air” aspect of the story, successive scenes often feel unfocused rather than mysterious, while a hard-earned sense of dread is occasionally sacrificed far too easily for the sake of the short-lived thrill of a gratuitous visual or aural “shock”.

The ensemble cast are genuinely impressive, though Elizabeth Nabben and Amber McMahon are particularly memorable as (respectively) the snobbish headmistress Mrs Appleyard and the young Englishman who somehow manages to find one of the missing girls during his own search of Hanging Rock. Yet there is a sense that the script that these actors so powerfully bring to life is itself not quite focused enough. Picnic at Hanging Rock has potentially much to say about gender, budding sexuality, and the dangers from imposing one idea of “civilisation” onto an alien environment. That this adaptation opts to focus chiefly on a sense of dread is not, in itself, a problem; that it doesn’t always achieve it, though, is.

Reviews by Paul Fisher Cockburn


One of Two

Scottish Storytelling Centre

Moira in Lockdown

Laughing Horse @ Bar 50

Love and Sex on the Spectrum

Royal Lyceum Theatre

Mrs Puntila And Her Man Matti


Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. We don't want your money to support a hack's bar bill at Abattoir, but if you have a pound or two spare, we really encourage you to support a good cause. If this review has either helped you discover a gem or avoid a turkey, consider doing some good that will really make a difference.

You can donate to the charity of your choice, but if you're looking for inspiration, there are three charities we really like.

Mama Biashara
Kate Copstick’s charity, Mama Biashara, works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. They give grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. That five quid you spend on a large glass of House White? They can save someone’s life with that. And the money for a pair of Air Jordans? Will take four women and their fifteen children away from a man who is raping them and into a new life with a moneymaking business for Mum and happiness for the kids.
Donate to Mama Biashara now

Theatre MAD
The Make A Difference Trust fights HIV & AIDS one stage at a time. Their UK and International grant-making strategy is based on five criteria that raise awareness, educate, and provide care and support for the most vulnerable in society. A host of fundraising events, including Bucket Collections, Late Night Cabarets, West End Eurovision, West End Bares and A West End Christmas continue to raise funds for projects both in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Donate to Theatre MAD now

Acting For Others
Acting for Others provides financial and emotional support to all theatre workers in times of need through the 14 member charities. During the COVID-19 crisis Acting for Others have raised over £1.7m to support theatre workers affected by the pandemic.
Donate to Acting For Others now



The Blurb

On a summer’s day in 1900 three Australian schoolgirls grew tired of their classmates and yearned for adventure. Escaping their teacher’s watchful gaze they absconded, away from the group and towards the beckoning Hanging Rock – never to be seen again.

Picnic at Hanging Rock has haunted the Australian psyche for over a century both in print and on film. In Tom Wright’s chilling adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s classic novel, five performers struggle to solve the mystery of the missing girls and their teacher. Euphoria and terror reverberate throughout Appleyard College, as the potential for history to repeat itself becomes nightmarishly real.

Renowned Australian theatre makers Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne and Black Swan State Theatre Company join us at The Lyceum with a haunting tale for January which proves horror lurks on a warm, summer’s day.

Most Popular See More

The Play That Goes Wrong

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Matilda the Musical

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

The Phantom of the Opera

From £27.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Back to the Future - The Musical

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Tina - The Tina Turner Musical

From £12.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Moulin Rouge! The Musical

From £30.00

More Info

Find Tickets