Please don’t stop, girl: this is an impressive debut

A "Stop Girl" production image, featuring actors Amber McMahon (left) and Sheridan Harbridge. Photo: Brett Board/supplied.

Review: Stop Girl, Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills. By editor-at-large, Gary Nunn.

★★★★

To listen to journalist Sally Sara on ABC Radio National’s flagship RN Breakfast, as I did last week, you’d perhaps be surprised to learn that this steely, conscientious presenter has her own remarkable story, and wants to tell it theatrically. 

Her steadfast professional impartiality means she obeys public broadcast journalism 101: do not become the story. To see her semi-autobiographical debut play Stop Girl, you discover that such objectivity and restraint belies planets of pain, PTSD and personality. Watching all three laid bare on the Belvoir’s stage makes for an engaging night for those interested in the world of news both here and abroad. 

Suzie, a trailblazing Australian foreign correspondent, is posted to Afghanistan after a long string of other international postings. Bec, an old school friend, has picked a different, more domestic life involving crying on school sports fields if her kids do – or don’t – win a certificate. 

Bec visits Suzie in Afghanistan to do a profile on her – part of the public broadcaster’s marketing effort. When there, she sees that Suzie seems in her element – unflinching at police warning gunshots, rebuffing advances made by Afghan soldiers rolling pebbles at them and unflappable when a suicide bomb explodes, safe in the knowledge that terrorists are careful not to kill journalists because “they need us”. She has trained herself to be numb. 

Three golden rules are followed: honour the dead; don’t break down; don’t make the situation worse. Which means do not connect. Just report. 

But when Suzie returns to Sydney, things slowly fall apart as PTSD’s bewildering grip takes hold of someone who considered herself tough. It’s the small things that become scary: a visit to Woolworths or the bank; litigation over a childcare story which bored her to tears.

Mansoor Noor (left) and Sheridan Harbridge in Stop Girl. Photo: Brett Boardman/supplied.

“There was almost a grief that came from finding out I was not as brave as I thought,” Sara says in the writer’s note.

The audience experiences that grief with her, processing the trauma through a creeping claustrophobia of Suzie not fitting in back in a land down under where, “When you Google ‘freedom’, the first result is ‘Freedom Furniture.’”

It’s Suzie’s mum, Marg, (a member of ‘Woke Widows’!) who – after a heroic effort – gets Suzie to open up. And like all mums, she nails her daughter, who can cope when the stakes are high, but not when they are low. “You’ve always struggled with ordinariness,” she says, in one of the play’s most moving scenes involving the two women stress-cleaning in their underwear, “but ordinariness is scary too.”

Sheridan Harbridge is a strong lead, and her portrayal of PTSD is convincing enough to unnerve. Amber McMahon is wonderful as the supportive best mate who’s endured her own tragedy of a stillborn child; not once does she overact, and her commitment to such restraint endears you to her character effortlessly.

The plays gives Sara the opportunity to be all the things her role forbade her from showing the public, who think they know her: she’s funny, sardonic and mischievously lascivious. “The odds are good but the goods are … odd,” she says of the oversupply of male foreign correspondents. 

There are many such amusing lines in this slightly verbose play, but the pace is so fast, they’re not always given the oxygen they deserve to percolate, and some risk getting lost. Then again, maybe that’s the point: the show’s title is about a woman too scared to slow down.

Nine theatre companies rejected the script before it found a home at the Belvoir and a dozen rewrites have resulted in a play that – like Suzie – could benefit from some silence. Still, the bold decision to present this important story as a play rather than the more well-worn road of a book pays off.

It’s an intriguing insight for anyone interested in the mechanisms of war correspondence, especially the impact on the messenger herself who, despite her journalistic distance, cannot help but connect. It’s a job that sometimes demands the suspension of being human; objectivity, in these intense circumstances, has its limits, and its consequences. 

Sheridan Hardbridge (left) and Amber McMahon in Stop Girl. Photo: Brett Boardman/supplied.

News lovers will adore lines like this one about investigative journalist Kate McClymont: “She only needs to raise one of those eyebrows for every politician in Sydney to shit themselves.” If this line loses you, though, it may not be the show for you: it’s aimed at the media-savvy.

The ultimate message is universal – a new golden rule for any journalists watching. Honour the dead, yes, but also honour the living. And that very much includes yourself.

Stop Girl plays the Upstairs Theatre at Belvoir St Theatre, 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills, until Sunday, 25 April. Tickets ($33–$68) and further info from https://belvoir.com.au/productions/stop-girl/ or (02) 9699 3444.

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.