Arriving at the picture-perfect Swanbank Rail Station—complete with cream wooden-slat walls, green window-frames hooded in matching tin, and a red tin roof—we knew we were in for a treat. Sitting on the small train platform, overlooking a lake, the Flowers Theatre Company placed their audience in an intimate space within which they brought an important local story to life. In a highly-enjoyable one-act play we grew to admire the work of The Train Tea Society—an organisation that was “the warm beating heart of Ipswich” during World War One. We also got to know and love some inspiring women, and chuckle as they shared a few important life lessons: about friendship, honesty, compassion… and the importance of tea.
As the lights dimmed, and the air-raid siren rang out, we were immediately taken back to the terrors of war. Members of the cast fled across the stage—only gradually coming together around a lace-covered table. And so the scene is set. Over the next 75 minutes we experience some of the highs and lows of the Train Tea Society’s work—from meetings to fund-raisers.
There are many parallels between the Flowers Company production and the original Train Tea Society they so wonderfully brought to life. Contemporary newspaper reports praise the earnest enthusiasm and efficient organisation of the original Ipswich society—which was a focal point for patriotic fund-raising, often through morale-boosting entertainments. In June 1920, the Queensland Times (Ipswich) encouraged readers to join them at the Town Hall for a varied evening of entertainments—an “ambitious presentation” that “should be an unqualified success”. Monies raised were used to send ‘comfort packs’ to the front line, and to pay for refreshments served to returning soldiers. Bringing the Train Tea Society story to Brisbane’s 2016 Anywhere Festival, Emily Vascotto (Writer & Producer) and Gabriella Flowers (Director & Producer), created an ambitious presentation which was an unqualified success. I only wish that more local audiences had an opportunity to experience this wonderful (sold out) production.
As you might expect, the story focuses on tea and a train. In particular, we learn more about the society around the time of the visit of Nora (Aimee Duroux)and Nellie’s (Samantha Bull’s) elegant cousin, Margaret Pierce (a beautifully-judged performance by Olivia Hall-Smith), who travels to Ipswich for her nurse training. On arriving, the visitor is astounded that more young women are not joining her in front line nursing—incredulous that her cousins are only raising money and offering cups of tea when naively asserting “no-one has ever been saved by a cup of tea.” Naturally, we learn quite how wrong she was.
The cast were superb. The program notes highlight that the majority of the characters are fictional, but we know that over 90 years ago Mrs J. A. Eliza Cameron was the President and driving force behind the original society, supported by an “energetic” Miss Berge as secretary. Julia Johnson created a highly-believable Mrs J.A. Eliza Cameron—capable of managing a team of volunteers to best effect, while sharing her wisdom and experience with the younger, more impetuous women around her. Johnson played the ‘lady bountiful’ role with aplomb, and was a compelling presence on the stage as she observed some of the more reckless and ill-advised exchanges between other characters. Equally, the interplay between Johnson and the enthusiastic-but-slightly-ditzy secretary of the Society (Edith Berge, entertainingly played by Wendy Spencer) brought to life the challenges of working with volunteers.
One of the many strengths of Vascotto’s script is this pairing of characters. In addition to Edith Berge’s close shadowing of Mrs Cameron, we meet the irrepressible Nellie and Nora Cummings (“the twins”), as well as Millicent Kellaway (Maddison Kennedy-Tucker) and her companion Bertha Short (Casey McCollow). McCollow’s Bertha is an amiable counter-point to the superior and scheming Millicent (played with great relish and skill by Kennedy-Tucker). Bertha is a patient, hard-working and put-upon companion—beautifully created by McCollow, who managed to turn the stacking of a tea tray into a charming and funny expression of the things she would like to teach her friend (we’ve probably all been there at some point...)[i].
In The Train Tea Society, raising money to providea “piping hot cup of warm wishes” for returning soldiers provides a reassuring and stable program of activity that enables those “at home’ to contribute to the war effort. This may all sound very serious and worthy. But, just as the original society members clearly had great fun in their social activity, so the Flowers Company created a really enjoyable light comedy. Duroux and Bull were perfect in their portrayal of the bubbly twins: delivering, with excellent comic timing, highly-amusing performances—particularly when ‘tapping for the troops’ (you had to be there). Flowers demonstrated her strengths as a director throughout, ensuring that every possible line, transition, and move entertained.
The other members of the creative team also deserve high praise. I loved the attention to detail in the costumes, props, hair and make-up. It is difficult to believe that this was the first full-scale theatrical project for the talented Jaymee Richards (working alongside fellow costume designer, Kristine Von Hilderbrandt). I was just disappointed that the “TTS” aprons weren’t on sale at the kiosk afterwards. Amy Randall is clearly up to any stage management challenge—having now added cuing a real steam train to her CV. And it would be remiss of me not to mention the evocative soundtrack (thanks to the work of sound designer Daniella Hart), and also the hard-working Assistant Director, Laura Campbell.
A little like the risks of performing with children and animals, there was the potential for the cast of The Train Tea Society to be upstaged by the eighth ‘member’ of the team—steam train no. 448, R.V Armstrong (under the able stewardship of the Queensland Pioneer Steam Railway). After all, it is not every day that Ipswich gets to host a possible world first theatrical event (just how many productions have included a real, operational steam train?). But the cast and creatives ably demonstrated that the train was a bonus—and not the lynchpin of this particular event. I am sure that, in the hands of this team, the play would work equally well in a mainstream theatre. And I’d certainly recommend student and community groups to hunt down the script for their own future performances.
High expectations can sometimes be a burden. But in this case, my high expectations were more than met—and the audience were all equally enthralled. A huge thank you to Gabriella, Emily and the team for creating such a memorable theatrical event. And a big shout out to Ipswich City Council and all of the individual donors and supporters who made the whole event pozible through their donations and funding.
Verdict: Enchanting. Chuffed, stoked & driven to superlatives. 5 stars.
Audience tip: It is a few kilometres to the end of Swanbank Road. Keep the lake on your left and follow the signs to the power station (the rail station is opposite the power station). Arrive early and take the opportunity to visit the cash bar. Dress for cooler weather, and bring a camera to capture a picture at the end of the show.
The Train Tea Society finishes what I hope will be the first of many runs on 8th May, 2016. The production was one of the first to sell out in the packed 2016 Anywhere Festival program.