Belinda and Maggie's excellent adventure

By Diana Simmonds Feature Posted on December 31st 1969

Belinda Giblin is sounding a bit croaky and weary - not surprising really - she's been on the road around Australia with Maggie Kirkpatrick in The Shoehorn Sonata for longer than many modern marriages.

"We first did it in 2004 and this tour has been three and a half months," Giblin laughs. She's on the phone from yet another hotel room. This one is in Geelong. "We started in Queensland, then moved on to New South Wales - the regional circuit, I can't remember how many venues. Then country Victoria, we flew to Perth for lots of points in Western Australia. Flew back to Melbourne for the outer Melbourne circuit - so we did lots of Melbourne theatres. We went to Tasmania in between and after Geelong we're up to Gosford, Glen Street and Orange. And that's it."

The Shoehorn Sonata is a very special play: written by John Misto, it started out at Penrith in 2004 and two separate seasons ago. It has been extraordinarily successful all over Australia.

"Christine [Dunstan, the play's producer] came and saw the last night at Penrith," Giblin recalls. "She said - I want it, would you do it if I can organise a tour? We said - yes, not really thinking beyond that. And Christine came back to us with this amazing schedule! But I have to tell you, she's magnificent. For actors to be looked after and sent on the road by her is an experience you don't forget."

Actors don't forget the awful experiences either - the truthful but libellous accidental adventures at the hands of shonky producers would fill a book and probably should. Meanwhile, however, Giblin and Kirkpatrick, two of the much-loved and admired veterans of Australian theatre have been causing tears and laughter all over the country.

"It's true," agrees Giblin. "It's all in the writing. John Misto has written a quite extraordinary play. Maggie says she would like to do it for the rest of her life. There's not a night goes by when people are sobbing one minute and laughing the next."

The Shoehorn Sonata is the story of two Australians - Bridie and Sheila - who were 25 and 15 when Singapore fell to the invading Japanese in World War II.

"Much to the surprise of the Brits," says Giblin sharply. "They didn't believe the Japs could do it, so of course, there was no preparation, no plans. The women and children were finally evacuated on 44 ships and they were all bombed. Bridie and Sheila meet in the water and then spend the next three and a half years interned in camps in Sumatra."

Bridie, a nurse, helps the younger girl survive the horrors of the camps. At the end of the war they go their separate ways and meet up again 50 years on for the making of a documentary about those days.

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"It's about friendship, mateship, loyalty, betrayal and secrets revealed," says Giblin. "Like so many people who went through the war - any war - they have never spoken of their experiences to anyone else. So the play is a rollercoaster of emotions for us and also for many in the audiences."

Giblin and Kirkpatrick have had the luxury of playing to pretty well packed houses on their tour with "lots of standing ovations" according to Giblin.

"It's been a great joy, even though it's tiring and sometimes you can;t remember quite where you are. It's an honest piece of work, there are no tricks and, for the actors, no hoops you have to jump to make it work. We have to go through it and the audience does too. We've met lots of survivors - now in their 90s - and it's very special for them."

The play also appeals to a much younger audience, however - and not simply because it's on the syllabus in New South Wales.

"Young kids have come along and absolutely loved it," says Giblin. "For one thing they don't anything about what happened, about that period, so they're fascinated and astonished. For another, many of them realise they're learning about what happened to their grandparents, what their grandparents went through, for the first time. So talking to them - when we do the meet the audience sessions afterwards - has been an eye-opener for everyone."

As they move towards the end of the tour it's this response from audiences that buoy up the weary travellers.

Maggie Kirkpatrick and Belinda Giblin

"I think Maggie would agree that's it's fairly gruelling," says Giblin. "And that's because the play is an emotional journey in itself. But we're doing five or six shows a week instead of the usual eight, because of the travelling and that gives you breathing space. I do the driving - and we've had lovely brand new Hertz cars - or we fly. And one day, when we were in Tasmania, I went off for a drive and I stopped somewhere beautiful and thought - I'm blessed. I'm working in a wonderful play, with a wonderful director, co-star and producer. I'm in this beautiful place and it couldn't be better."

Giblin knows this from experience: this tour of Shoehorn Sonatais her tenth national tour and some productions have been less than happy.

"Oh!" she shudders. "If you're in something that doesn't click with audiences, or is simply bad, or you don't get on terribly well with someone else in the cast, it's really really tiring. It's demoralising. You count the days."

But it hasn't been like that on this tour, says Giblin firmly.

"We've found more depth and more challenges in the play as the months have gone by," she says. "It's a remarkable work and I think it changes everyone who comes in contact with it. You never really forget it."

The Shoehorn Sonata, Laycock Theatre, Gosford, May 10-12; Glen St Theatre, Belrose, May 17-20; Civic Theatre, Orange, May 24-25, check www.cdp.com.au for full details.

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