When things are tough, and they usually are in her line of work, foreign correspondent Suzie Broughton (the wonderful Sheridan Harbridge) clings to two rules: honour the dead; don’t make things worse. But there’s a third rule, less frequently cited in Stop Girl, that’s absolutely central to what happens to Suzie. “Never, ever connect,” she says. “Keep a distance.”

Sheridan Harbridge in Belvoir's Stop GirlSheridan Harbridge in Belvoir’s Stop Girl. Photo © Brett Boardman

There’s a reminder there of the famous epigram in Howard’s End, “Only connect!”, although E.M. Forster meant something more than just acknowledging other people. Integration was needed. “Live in fragments no longer,” he wrote.

Suzie (for whom read Sally Sara), has seen people literally dying in fragments during many of her foreign postings and is living in fragments. She is disintegrating, a state brought to crisis point by coming home to safe, unexciting Australia. She has experienced life in high definition and now she is surrounded by low-res meaninglessness and Potts Point trendies, or at least that’s how it seems.

Mansoor Noor in Stop GirlMansoor Noor in Belvoir’s Stop Girl. Photo © Brett Boardman

As someone who has lived with conflict all his life, Suzie’s assistant on the ground in Afghanistan, Atal (Mansoor Noor), has a very different perspective. He is brought to Australia temporarily for safety reasons when Suzie leaves Afghanistan and, not unreasonably, decides he wants to stay. He’s a qualified engineer who has to take a job in soft furnishings but that’s just the way it goes. One day at a time. Suzie’s funny and stalwart best friend Bec (Amber McMahon, spot-on as always) also knows the need to accept – to integrate – deep trauma. Self-punishment only leads to madness.

Sheridan Harbridge and Amber McMahon in Belvoir's Stop GirlAmber McMahon and Sheridan Harbridge in Belvoir’s Stop Girl. Photo © Brett Boardman

The heavy emotional lifting is delicately done by Toni Scanlan as Suzie’s mother Marg, whose love and wisdom are the keys to putting her daughter back together again, and Atal is given a beautiful rumination on love, family and loneliness, offered by Noor with the calm, quiet authority of someone who understands to the core of his being the need to embrace life and the fragility of existence. “Every day we are ready,” he says.

These are people worth caring about and their individual pains are sensitively explored. A powerful point in Stop Girl is that tragedy isn’t a competition.

Toni Scanlan in Stop GirlToni Scanlan in Belvoir’s Stop Girl. Photo © Brett Boardman

Anne-Louise Sarks directs a strong, unfussy production that foregrounds the strengths of Sara’s work and papers over a few cracks. The observations of journalistic life and language are, not surprisingly, acute. Sara is pitch-perfect when it comes to Suzie’s powers of description and her sardonic journalist’s wit. Laughter and anguish (the story that gives the play its title is heartbreaking) are never far apart. On the other side of the ledger there is some clunky exposition and a somewhat rushed ending that doesn’t fully explore Suzie’s path to some measure of recovery. Deborah Galanos is wasted as Suzie’s counsellor back home in Sydney. She’s the only character without a name but if that is meaningful the point is lost.

Sara’s first play is an intensely personal work that lays bare some truths most consumers of news rarely consider. We know what happens in the world’s most dangerous places because journalists show us, but what happens to them? How do they keep doing what they do? Most potently for Sara the question was what happens after – when the work is done, the adrenalin rush is over and ordinary life has to resume. How to cope with the images that won’t go away, the regret about things done or not done, the accumulation of grief and anger.

Sheridan Harbridge in Stop GirlSheridan Harbridge in Belvoir’s Stop Girl. Photo © Brett Boardman

Listening to the list of atrocities – a partial list – Suzie has seen is hard enough for an audience at a play. Sara has been there, bearing witness. No wonder she had a breakdown when she got home.

Somehow, though, despite Harbridge’s smart, passionate, acerbic, tender performance as Sara’s proxy, there is a feeling of being held somewhat at arm’s length in Stop Girl, particularly in that over-swift resolution. The journalist – Sara – is still to the fore, observing herself, keeping that last bit of distance.

Stop Girl is at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until 25th April


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