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Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock (Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh)

Tom Wright adapts Joan Lindsay's classic novel about five performers solving the mystery of a group of missing girls

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock has been terrorising the Australian psyche since the novel's publication in 1967. Set on the edge of the outback in rural Victoria, it tells the story of a group of four girls from Appleyard College who go on a picnic to the local beauty spot. Three of them, plus one of their teachers, vanish.

On one level the story can be read as a mystery, a problem to solve, but in reality it's much more interesting for that. It's about the dark themes that lie just below the surface and central to this is the country itself. How can the very English characters cope with a land so different, strange and threatening as Australia, and are the terrifying events in fact the land taking revenge on its colonisers? As important is the theme of the girls' sexual awakening and the transition from innocence to experience, symbolised by the quasi-mystical Miranda, who is repeatedly invoked by the other characters. Then there is how the trauma impacts those left behind, not least the Headmistress, whose world steadily unravels as the play proceeds.

Most people are more familiar with the novel's 1975 film version, a wonderful piece of work which is, nevertheless, fairly static, with beautiful shots and an important role for music, but not as much for text. Tom Wright's adaptation, which premiered in Australia and receives its only UK outing here, wisely places itself at as far a remove from the film as you can imagine, and Matthew Lutton's staging works hand-in-hand with it. The set is a hermetically sealed black box, bare of scenery, with only a suggestively hung, delicately lit tree floating above. For each scene new props appear and disappear in total darkness, the eerie sense of disconnect enhanced by the thumping electronica of Ash Gibson Greig's score. It's spare, suggestive and, save for a couple of horror-film shocks, remarkably subtle, and hence very effective.

The five performers spend most of the play as the multiple characters in the story, but for the first 15 or so minutes they are our narrators, telling the story of that fateful morning at school and, obliquely, events at the rock itself. That in itself is the play's greatest masterstroke because Wright allows your imagination to paint all the pictures that you need – the rock, the creek, the ferns – so that what you create in your head is much more effective than any polystyrene sets could ever be. From that point on the characters exist in a world that the audience has made for itself, giving context to each tightly constructed scene

Some might want more answers, but for me it's the mystery and the dark suggestion that makes this show what it is. I might have wanted them to make more of Miranda herself, who is such a touchstone for the play but who we hardly know at all, though I acknowledge that's more of a problem with the original source. Nevertheless, at 90 minutes without an interval it's a pressure-cooker evening in the theatre which challenges, unsettles and disturbs. This, the darkest time of year, makes it a great moment to explore the darkest recesses of our imaginations.

Picnic at Hanging Rock runs at the Lyceum Theatre until 28 January.