Monash students step up for Dressmaker musical



The Dressmaker: A Musical Adaptation 
Director: Suzanne Chaundy
Composer: Peter Rutherford
Librettist: James Millar
Starring: Hester Van Vyver, John O’May, Sue Ingleton, Noni McCallum, Josh Gardiner and Nelson Gardiner (and Monash Students)
Where: Alexander Theatre, Monash Performing Arts Centre
When: Until Friday night
Rating: ★★★★★

By James WF Roberts           

Presented by Monash Centre for Theatre and Performance and The Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, The Dressmaker – A Musical Adaptation is captivating its audiences.

The musical is a collaboration between Monash Performing Arts students and industry professionals who mentored the students.

Based on Rosalie Ham’s best-selling novel and the major motion picture starring Kate Winslet, Hugo Weaving and Judi Davis, this musical takes the audience on an emotional ride of hilarity, romance, tragedy, revenge and triumph.

The story is set in 1958, a time of white picket fences, rockabilly, football, and the dullness of being ordinary in the Victorian wheatbelt town of Dungatar.

Enter Tilly Dunnage, portrayed by Dutch-born New Zealand actor Hester Van Vyver, who has returned home to care for her invalid mother Molly, played with pathos and a dignified charm by Castlemaine local Sue Ingleton.

Bringing her sewing machine and her talents honed in European fashion houses, Tilly returns to find Dungatar is being held hostage by its own secrets, lies and rumours.

As the story unfolds, Tilly finds an inner strength she never knew she had as she confronts the darkness and the hypocritical underbelly that runs the small rural town.


There are dark themes of sexual assault, murder, revenge, suicide, mental illness and intolerance of identity and sexual orientation in rural communities.

But those dark themes are juxtaposed with the naivety of the locals of Dungatar and their own arrogance.

Their own little world is the most important thing that exists.

Rutherford’s score echoes the 1950s with leitmotifs reminiscent of musicals such as Guys and Dolls and West Side Story, while also showing traces of early Australian rockabilly and country music. 

The ensemble pieces contain touches of the early Blue Suede Shoe era of Elvis, yet the music has the fresh vibrancy and groove of contemporary musical theatre.

The songs show an emotional depth that has similarities to the work of a young Andrew Lloyd Webber. 

James Millar’s libretto is layered, comical and tragically emotive. His and Rutherford’s  work gel together so perfectly, the performance felt more like an old classic than a new musical.

The musical asks its audiences:  What is the cost of love and how far would you go for the person you loved?

It also touches on the obsession many of us have with making our “mother proud” at the cost of our own self-worth.

Hester van Vyver is the stand out performer of the show.

James Millar. Picture:

The subtlety and beauty of her performance, mixed with the power and control in her voice, echoes Marina Prior’s Christine in The Phantom of the Opera.

The sparse direction and set design allows for the performers to build and elaborate the original characters in Ham’s book.

Professional actor Sue Ingleton, who portrays Mad Molly, said she learnt a lot from working with the Monash students.

“It was an amazing experience working with these young kids from Monash, many of whom had never been involved in a professional production before,” she said.

“They were not just learning from us, they were also teaching us new ways to see things, it was a real collaboration,” she said.

“The energy these young kids have is inspired. They are still studying and have exams, but were putting in as much as the professionals were.”

Millar said the story demonstrated how much of an impact the arts could have on people.

“I am just so happy that Rosalie Ham wrote a novel that can lend itself to so many interpretations and still speak to so many people,” he said.

“This production proves how important and how vibrant the state of the arts are in Australia today. This is why we need to fund the arts. The arts matter.”