Hope, Courage and a Mother’s Love in Perth Premiere of Murderous Musical, 7/11-26

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ONE of Australia’s darkest child murder cases seems an unlikely topic for a musical – but despite its macabre origins, The Hatpin is a story of hope, courage and a mother’s undying love for her child.


Written by WA Academy of Performing Arts graduates James Millar and Peter Rutherford, the musical makes its WA premiere at the Old Mill Theatre this July directed by Graeme Johnson with musical direction from Paul Lawrence Olsen.


Inspired by the true story of Amber Murray, The Hatpin tells of how she unwittingly gave up her son in 1892 to a notorious Sydney “baby farming” family, giving them support payments while looking for work.


But they actually murdered the child and were eventually arrested and tried for killing several other infants, leading to one of the most moving criminal trials in Australian history.


“The Hatpin is unlike most popular musicals,” Johnson said. “Deeply powerful and moving, its attraction lies not in flashing lights, catchy tunes or massive dance numbers but in the fact its story is based on one of the darkest cases in our legal history.


“It’s definitely not a show for the faint-hearted – this musical makes Sweeney Todd look like Annie.”


Originally, Johnson never planned to direct The Hatpin, although he did submit the idea for the show to the Old Mill Theatre.


Two directors earmarked for the musical became unavailable with one returning to the eastern states and the other unexpectedly dying from cancer.


“My direction of this work was born from desperation more than anything,” Johnson said. “Rather than cancel the play, I took the reins myself.”


Involved in theatre since 2000, Johnson first became involved when he took over as props master on a show.


He soon realised nothing in the theatrical world is what it seems when he was handed three lever-arch files full of type-written pages, highlighting what needed to be added and removed from the stage.


Since then, Johnson has built and painted sets, stage-managed, directed, acted and operated lighting and sound for the Old Mill, Stirling, Phoenix, Playlovers, Melville, Groovy Boots and Garrick Theatres, among many others.


“With two very dear friends of mine – Hywel Williams and Joe McCabe, who have both left us for the great stage in the sky – I was part of the original crew that created Phoenix Theatre in Hamilton Hill,” he said.


“Hywel and I were the first technical excellence award recipients at the annual Finley Awards for our work together on the Old Mill Theatre’s Falsettos, striking a definitive blow for the backstage ninjas of theatre.”


Johnson admits directing a musical such as The Hatpin “scares him witless” but acknowledges his talented cast and musical director, matched with the advice, friendship and expertise of “some of Perth’s best people”, are guiding him along the way.


“I have a clear image of what I want to achieve but the path to getting there is an interesting one,” he said.


“Fortunately, my behind-the-scenes background in theatre will help me with the actual staging of the show, given it’s one of the more technically challenging productions Perth has seen for some time.”


The Hatpin plays at 8pm, July 11, 12, 17, 18, 19, 23, 24, 25 and 26 with a 2pm matinee July 20. Tickets are $30, $25 concession – book at http://oldmilltheatre.com.au/tickets or on 9367 8719.


The heritage-listed Old Mill Theatre is on the corner of Mends Street and Mill Point Road, South Perth (opposite the Windsor Hotel and Australia Post).


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