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Fringe review: All the Lovely Magdalenes

Adelaide Fringe

‘What is this place?’ asks the bewildered teen. Girls wearing identical long frocks and aprons surround her. No one makes eye contact with the new arrival except a nun, who addresses her coldly. ‘You will be known as Edith.’ ★★★ ½

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Many have heard of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries but perhaps not so well known is that Australia also had institutions for “fallen women”. In All the Lovely Magdalenes, Scrambled Prince youth theatre company explores the mistreatment endured by young girls sent to be “cared for” in convents.

Their grim existence began when they were abandoned, by their families or the authorities, “into a world unknown”. Stripped of personal possessions, they were often allocated a new name before being inducted into life in the laundry room.

Daisy, now known as Edith (Meg Whiteman), has come to live with the Magdalenes after falling pregnant. She’s in shock at the realisation of where her actions have landed her. Olivia (Maia von Erkel-Bromley) is tasked with looking after Edith when she first arrives. No one, it originally appears, has much sympathy for the new girl or each other.

Abbie (Clare Steele) is here because she kissed a girl. Rose (Eve Souquet-Wigg) is mostly silent, terrified by dreams of the horrors she’s experienced. Others have been caught with men; all are considered tainted by “sin” and unfit to be seen outside the walls of their new home.

Any babies born become the property of the state, the infants signed away under coercion while their bereft mothers are forced to repent with hard labour.

Rhythmic, repetitive actions highlight the girls’ tedious and gruelling days. Scrubbing brushes scrape across the floor, and white bed sheets are used effectively as key props — they’re scrubbed in buckets, folded and used to cover the girls as they sleep.

The only periods of respite from work are the daily prayer sessions. “Forgive me, Lord, for I have sinned.” Arms raised, the girls beg to be forgiven for their actions. They appear contrite in front of the sisters but when they are unsupervised their true feelings (and some empathy) can be revealed. Throughout the performance, Edith’s suitcase remains on the stage, a reminder of the life she left behind.

Scrambled Prince is a touring youth theatre company based at Melbourne’s Eltham High School. The ensemble (students from Years 10 and 11) in Adelaide for this year’s Fringe has performed at the festival several times before. Their shows are devised collaboratively using movement, song and non-naturalistic theatre styles to tell stories.

They’re a talented group. All the Lovely Magdalenes was written by performer Clare Steele with the cast, and Steele is also responsible for the composition of all songs (except for one traditional piece).

In several scenes, the nuns resort to shrill screaming as they abuse the girls for infractions, reminding them at every opportunity that they have only themselves to blame for their plight. These moments could have been more powerful if they’d been played with more understated menace to intensify the depiction of the level of power and control the religious sisters hold over their charges.

All nine cast members give strong performances, singing and moving confidently as they take turns portraying different aspects of the girls’ lives. A well-crafted piece of theatre, All the Lovely Magdalenes works well as an evocation of the misery suffered in a time when a youthful misstep could result in tragic consequences.

All the Lovely Magdalenes can be seen at Bakehouse Theatre (Mainstage) until March 9. See more Adelaide Fringe reviews and stories here.

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