Shoehorn Sonata

Shoehorn Sonata image courtesy of Rix Ryan Photography.

The Shoe-Horn Sonata, a strange combination of words for a title. Those words spelt survival for two teenage girls after their boat was bombed by the Japanese in 1942 and they became prisoners of war. Bridie, played by Eve Wheeler, was an Australian nurse. Her father, previously in the military had given her a shoe-horn before she sailed off from her cosy home in Chatswood, Sydney to be stationed as a nurse in Singapore. It was a strange gift that ended up saving lives. Sheila, played by Marie Dickson, was the upper crust English girl whose mother taught her eloquence, the importance of the British stiff upper lip and not to be seen without her gloves. She formed a choir in the prison camp and created the sonata with the help of Bridie’s shoe-horn that was used as a metronome. It was the power of music that brought momentary joy to a joyless existence in the most degrading and inhumane living conditions.

The story is told by Bridie and Sheila fifty years after they were rescued from their hidden camp in Indonesia in 1945. The scenes alternate between Bridie and Sheila’s hotel room and the television studio where they are being interviewed about their three year entrapment. Fifty years of buried secrets are about to be revealed. We learn of the things they were made to do, the forced experimental starvation to test the endurance of the human body before death claimed them and many unimaginable atrocities that have never been spoken about. Some of the women were forced to service the Japanese men in brothels, something that was particularly abhorrent to Bridie.

The horrors of war and what these women experienced brought many in the audience, including myself, to tears. There is no question that these girls survived due to the strength of the bond they formed between themselves. The sacrifices they made for each other were to ensure their own survival. They propped each other up for fear of being left alone in such a cruel environment. Sheila’s ultimate sacrifice to save Bridie was so shameful to her that she remained a prisoner of war for the next fifty years as she battled the demons in her mind. Although reluctant to participate in the interview she saw the opportunity to be reunited with Bridie after fifty years would give her the strength she needed to finally cleanse herself from the festering wound that refused to heal. 

There were some powerful moments in the play, which was so beautifully written. I was totally immersed in its story. Marie and Eve’s performances were so well executed that one could think they were retelling their own stories. I found Marie’s performance particularly touching. She was able to express her emotions so powerfully, without the need to overact, that it brought me to tears. I would really like to urge those who may think that the title is not particularly interesting to consider booking tickets to see this show. It will enrich you in ways you may not expect and will certainly leave an imprint of the special bond of friendship and how it can get you through a life-threatening situation. I feel very grateful to have seen this production.   This powerful play holds such valuable lessons. All I could think of was how I wished there were more younger people in the audience to appreciate this true story of the strength of the human spirit. I noticed there are many young people that attend ANZAC day marches in respect to their family members. I’d like to encourage them to see, hear and experience this story.

The only point I felt marred the production was not seeing Rick, the interviewer, on stage sitting with the women. Having his voice booming from high above made him appear omnipresent and dominant, not a good thing when women are bearing their souls. It may have been intentional to make him appear God-like but it came across as impersonal and harsh to me…some of us are sensitive souls.

I’m grateful for director Jim Dickson’s choice of play and his direction with its delivery. Although the story is extreme, the mood is not overbearing. The subtleness with how it was expressed was what I feel made it powerful. There were no demands placed on the audience to react. It was simply told from the heart. I echo Jim’s words when he stated, ‘This is a play that needs to be staged. The forgotten women who were incarcerated by the Japanese deserve to be recognised.’ Lest We Forget.

The Shoehorn Sonata was performed at the Gold Coast Little Theatre in Southport, Queensland from the 14th of May until the 4th of June 2016.