THE HELLO GIRLS
THE HELLO GIRLS, Heart Strings Theatre Co at Hayes Theatre Co, 10 January-4 February 2024. Photography by Philip Erbacher
Just when you thought there was no possibility of a never-been-told story of WW1 emerging from the mists of time, along comes one so unexpected and stirring as to open your heart to the wonders of humanity all over again. Startling too that the story emerges not in bang-crash Hollywood heroics style but in the witty sensitivity of Peter Mills and Cara Reichel's 2018 chamber musical, The Hello Girls.
When the USA belatedly joined the war in Europe after spending most of 1917 dithering, it was quickly discovered that sausage-fingered soldiers were hopeless operators of telephonic equipment. Vital communications between battle front lines and elsewhere were taking many minutes rather than seconds to connect. A Bell Telephone Company switchboard supervisor, Grace Banker (dynamic Rhianna McCourt), knew this and began agitating for expert women telephonists to be called up. In March 1918, the first group of bilingual (French/English) hello girls sailed for Europe.
What happened in what we now know was the last, cataclysmic year of WW1 is told through a freewheeling score and sharp lyrics across two hours plus interval of enthralling personal stories. Kyle Sheedy’s sound design beautifully balances the band (hidden backstage) and ten performers, and crucially gives vocal clarity to each – we need to know what they’re saying and singing, and do.
The production’s first outing was in Canberra where set designer Monique Langford had a large proscenium arch stage to fill. Her design – of abstracted phone lines and poles with mobile switchboard stations out front – translates remarkably well to the Hayes space. And lighting designer Tim Hope enhances each moment with an unusually precise and effective illumination. Choreographer Amy Orman has the company marching and twirling as if bound for the Edinburgh Tattoo, while the women and their indispensable switchboards are as integrated as life partners.
The tone of the score – across many genres and times – is echoed in Sarah Hordern’s eclectic costumes. The most amazing fact about the women’s hideous, historically accurate uniforms is that they had to pay for them! While enlisted men were issued their kit, the women had to pay the equivalent of a civilian month’s salary for the privilege. In the most light-handed and least didactic ways, the various discriminations faced by the women are revealed: still shocking if not surprising.
Director Jason Langley was a smart choice by the producers. His expertise in musical theatre is matched by an insightful approach to actors. He draws intelligently detailed performances from each as they bring to life historical characters as well as composites of the war and its people (Kira Leiva, Kaori Maeda-Judge, Nikola Gucciardo, Kaitlin Nihill, Joel Hutchings, Matthew Hearne, David Hooley, Lincoln Elliot, Zachary Selmes, Jessy Heath, Alexis van Maanen and James Frampton).
Behind the scenes, musical director Natalya Aynsley makes much of the score. On opening night, sound operator Emma-Jade Dwyer gave the first half ear-bleeding volume, but post-interval it seemed more modulated. And that’s important as the words are pivotal in conveying stories and times of which most know little or nothing.
At the time of year when the juggernaut Sydney Festival sucks up all the oxygen and attention, it’s a bold decision to come to town with an independent production. Heart Strings has done it before with Urinetown and succeeded. They deserve to succeed again – with Bells on (sorry) – as The Hello Girls is a fabulous show. It has it all: breathtaking harmonies, scintillating performances, astonishing stories, humour, poignancy, and a huge heart. Recommended without reservation.