Charles Dickens’ life is well documented, but the reformation home he established for “fallen” women, who were then shipped off to the colonies, is one of his little-known undertakings. This intriguing slice of history provides the inspiration for a new Australian play by Seanna van Helten called Fallen.

Review, Fallen, Charles DickensThe cast of Fallen. Photograph © Marnya Rothe

In the 1840s, the prolific English novelist and social reform advocate founded Urania Cottage with the financial backing of banking heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts, reputedly the richest woman in England.

Located in Shepherd’s Bush, then a semi-rural area of London, Urania Cottage was a kind of halfway house for women who Dickens found in prisons or living and working on the street; women who he thought had the potential to be rehabilitated and domesticated. Apparently, the home was in operation for around a decade.

The women were well treated, but subjected to strict rules, including surrendering their one dress each evening so that they couldn’t escape. Instructed never to talk about their past so that they could start afresh, they were taught social etiquette and domestic duties, from gardening and sewing to playing the piano. At the end of their rehabilitation, they were not allowed to return to their lives in London, but dispatched to the colonies, including Australia, to become wives or maids.

Inspired by a radio interview she heard with Jenny Hartley, author of the book Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women, Van Helten wrote Fallen for She Said Theatre, a Melbourne-based feminist company, which she co-founded with Penny Harpham.

The script was developed with the support of Playwriting Australia at the National Script Workshop 2016 and given a public reading at the WITS (Women in Theatre & Screen) Festival Fatale. Now, Fallen gets its first full staging in a co-production between She Said Theatre and Sport for Jove, presented with the Seymour Centre.

Directed by Harpham, the lyrical play has been given an aptly non-naturalist production, which is beautifully staged and performed. Van Helten and Harpham didn’t want Fallen to be about Dickens, and given his requirement that the women leave their past lives behind, the play focusses on the hermetically sealed world of the home, following a year in the life of five of the women who passed through its programme, and the matron who oversaw their reformation.

Set designer Owen Phillips has created an eloquent space backed by a translucent wall, used now and then for projections. The stage is divided into several areas – a bedroom, the matron’s office, a garden and, in the second act, a dining room – all of which is sensitively lit by Sian James-Holland. Chloe Greaves’ simple, period costuming also works well.

Review, Fallen, Charles DickensMegan Holloway and Lucy Goleby. Photograph © Marnya Rothe

Raya Slavin’s sound design adds considerably to the atmosphere. As the audience enters the theatre, the sounds of the outside world – church bells chiming, coach and horses clipping along the cobbled streets, footsteps and chatter as people pass by – summon mental images of Victorian London. Later the creaking of a ship and sounds of splashing water evoke the voyage the women face on their way to the other side of the world.

There are also very effective video projections by Michael Carmody, from a tiny ship disappearing over the horizon at the beginning to the crashing of engulfing waves at the end.

Review, Fallen, Charles DickensRebecca Montalti, Chantelle Jamieson and Rebecca Holloway. Photograph © Maryna Rothe

Working with movement choreographer Anja Mujic and fight choreographer Tim Dashwood, Harpham makes clever use of the space and evokes a world of tightly controlled rules and regulations, a metronome adding to the sense of oppressive regimentation at times. The choreographed movement contrasts with the relaxed physcality of the women when they are alone in their bedroom.

Van Helten has created six distinctively different, well delineated women: wilful, spirited Isabella (Rebecca Montalti) who bullies some of the others, the patient Julia (Moreblessing Maturure) who prefers not to rock the boat, the anxious Georgie (Megan Holloway at the performance I saw, but also played by Eloise Winestock), the girlish, emotional Martha (Abbie-lee Lewis), the educated, confident Rosina (Chantelle Jamieson) who comes from a higher social echelon than the others, and the cold, almost unflappable matron (Lucy Goleby).

The actors create a tight ensemble with strong performances all around, anchored by Goleby’s excellent portrayal of the matron. Barely raising her voice above a hushed tone and maintaining a contained stillness, Goleby radiates an steely authority, while conveying the character’s loneliness.

At the play unfolds, we watch the women struggle each in their own way with the need to disown their past, their pent-up emotions manifesting in various ways. And as the date of their departure looms, they begin to question the programme and the requirement that they leave London for an unknown life on the other side of the world.

The way they are moulded into becoming more “feminine” and thus more acceptable to society resonates still, and as a piece of history directly related to Australia, Fallen is fascinating. However, by revealing little of the outside world and only the odd snippet about the women’s past it feels as if the play is missing something. The first act, in particular, feels rather long and in need of something else to happen. Knowing more about the women – where they came from, where Dickens found them, and how and why they agreed to take part in his programme – would help give the play more heft and allow us to empathise with them more.

Still, it’s an intriguing subject and a beautifully staged play that is well worth a look.

Fallen plays at the Seymour Centre until April 22


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