A Girl’s Guide to World War (Musical Theatre Australia) – Theatre Review

Musical Theatre Australia’s award-winning A Girl’s Guide to World War tells the true story of some amazing women forgotten by our history. If its premise is not made clear by this hint as to its content, its sentiment comes through strongly during the first scene, which sees its narrator (Vix Sheather, lead singer and guitarist of Vix and the Slick Chix) interacting with the story’s protagonist Dr Anges Bennett (Aleathea Monsour). Always one for discretion, Bennett is uncomfortable with having her story shared. Regardless, we drop into it just before the outbreak of World War I, where she is trailblazing by providing sly medical training of nurses at a maternity hospital.

Despite the belief of many that women should be seen and not heard, follow the rules, not ask questions, not go to university and not become doctors, Agnes conveys an inspiring optimism that things will not only change, but get better. And so, she soon finds herself as the Commanding Officer of the “Bennett Unit” front-line hospital attached to the desperate Serbian army, which is suffering incredible losses in The Great War. Along with her passionate, no-nonsense Chief Surgeon (and later the first woman registered as a Medical Practitioner in Queensland), Dr Lilian Cooper (Susie French), she runs the unit with efficiency and compassion.

An outstanding ensemble cast provide vivid portraits of fascinating, colourful individuals with whom we long to spend time. Katy Forde’s writing is full of natural humour, often realised through the dialogue of the war hospital’s high-spirited ambulance girls (Rachel Fentiman and Lucy French-Woerthy). There is also the determined optimism of philanthropist Josephine Bedford, the lifelong companion of Dr Cooper, delightfully realised through Justine Anderson’s endearing performance. Anchoring everything is Monsour as the stern, forthright and socially awkward Dr Bennett, uncomfortable with being the centre of attention, but steadfast in her beliefs in both efficiency and respectability. Hers is, indeed, a fascinating story and we can only give thanks for her diaries and personal letters that have given us such insight.

The new Australian musical’s balance between drama and musical numbers is facilitated by Linus Monsour’s simple, but versatile, set design. Barry Somers’ lighting design guides us through the peaks and valleys of the wartime story’s emotions, making the early ballad “Purple Tree”’ from a young soldier appropriately melancholy. The simple and  beautiful “Ask Me Once Again” duet between lovers Josephine and Lillian is a wonderful showcase of the talents of band members Sue Moxon, Nicole Perry and Vix Sheather (sometimes joined by Monsour) and highlights Anderson’s almost-ethereal vocals.

A Girl’s Guide to World War is a wonderfully uplifting work of education, inspiration and entertainment across the annals of time. So rich are their lives that even the show’s running time seems insufficient to do these characters justice. Under Forde’s efficient direction, its 2 hours and 45 minutes’ duration (including interval) seems to fly by. Without doubt, these women’s stories are compelling and ones that deserve to be shared… and celebrated. The show’s real-life subjects are humanitarians and adventurers.

A Girl’s Guide to World War is showing at Brisbane Powerhouse until 20th February, 2022.

Meredith Walker
For more of Meredith Walker’s theatre reviews, check out 
Blue Curtains Brisbane.

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