Sydney II’s immersive drama unites stage and screen

Edward ScownGeraldton Guardian
The heartbreaking moment Jessie Rowe realises her husband won't be returning from sea
Camera IconThe heartbreaking moment Jessie Rowe realises her husband won't be returning from sea Credit: Pictures: Stewart Thorpe Photography

A big screen, a handful of hats and jackets, and three very skilled actors. That’s all it took to tell the story of Sydney II: Lost and Found.

Put together by Theatre 180, the show came to Geraldton’s Orana Cinema for the 80th anniversary of HMAS Sydney’s sinking.

A play at the cinema does sound odd, but it works beautifully.

The stage was set up in front of the big screen, flanked with lights and costume racks, and adorned with some wooden boxes. If I hadn’t looked at the ticket stub, I would’ve had no idea what was going on.

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It jumped between four settings and timelines. Beginning with the flourishing romance between sailor Allan Rowe, and his eventual wife Jessie. The actors quickly changed costumes to depict sailors on HMAS Sydney during their battles in the Mediterranean.

Read about the true stories:

The romance arc was not a case of creative licence. The true story of Allan and Jessie Rowe came from their daughter, Ellen Underwood, who was portrayed on screen.

“It was rather disconcerting,” Mrs Underwood said of seeing herself on screen.

“You think you’re over all that, but it dredges it all up again. It was so well done, you think, if they knew about it they’d be chuffed.”

The story jumped 66 years forward, to when the Finding Sydney Foundation was trying to convince the Howard government to grant them funds for their search.

Morgan Dukes as Glenys McDonald, one of the search party looking for the wrecks
Camera IconMorgan Dukes as Glenys McDonald, one of the search party looking for the wrecks

As the story drew closer to the fateful encounter with HSK Kormoran, the actors once again donned new hats, jackets, and accents to take the audience inside the bridge of the German raider.

Surprisingly the battle was shown entirely from the German perspective. HMAS Sydney approached on screen behind the bridge crew. Without the screen, this scene would have been empty. The intensity of the Captain and his officer increased as the Sydney drew closer.

The screen really came into its own during the search party acts. SONAR imagery scrolled down as the group scoured the depths. Not being an expert, I had no idea what I was looking for, but I was looking intently. You’ve never been happier to see a dark blob on a screen.

The performances from all three actors were phenomenal given the task. In the first scene, Myles Pollard — of Home and Away and McLeod’s Daughters fame — played two characters almost simultaneously. Tom O’Sullivan (X-Men origins: Wolverine, Alien Covenant) went from happy-go-lucky sailor to stern Kriegsmarine captain, and recent WAAPA graduate Morgan Dukes was seamless between grieving widow, and a schoolboy pestering the sailors at port in Geraldton.

Rather than the story-driven production you might have expected from a stage performance. This is more of a dramatised documentary.

The characters were as real as the events, all drawn from memoirs, reports, and eyewitness accounts from Kormoran survivors.

It’s not a movie, it’s not strictly theatre, but it is a captivating look into the history of Australia’s greatest naval tragedy.

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