Walkley award-winning war journalist Sally Sara spent a year covering the Afghanistan war for the ABC before returning to Australia and attempting to return to “normal life” in 2012. Belvoir’s new play, Stop Girl, is Sara’s playwriting debut and a semi-autobiographical attempt to come to terms with the post-traumatic stress disorder and grief that she experienced upon returning home, told through the lead character of Suzie (Sheridan Harbridge).
Stop Girl is a moving story about mental illness and suffering that successfully reminds us to be empathetic towards those whose struggles are often hidden in private. Although Sara’s story is certainly extraordinary, as a piece of theatre, Stop Girl often fails to deliver. Design-wise, Robert Courin’s set is unexciting and Jack Saltmiras and Susie Henderson’s video design is powerful but under-utilised. Despite being a tidy 100 minutes with no interval, the pace often seems to lag, and it feels like the story would have been improved by cutting about 20 minutes off the runtime.
The play, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, starts strong with a confronting and tense opening in Afghanistan, but then loses momentum upon Suzie’s return home. Unnecessary scenes of Suzie talking with her co-worker and friend Bec (Amber McMahon) often feel like they stall the story, rather than advance it. Harbridge has much better chemistry with Toni Scanlan’s Marg and the dynamic between a mother who is desperate to help, and a daughter who refuses to open up, is genuinely heart-wrenching to watch. Mansoor Noor’s empathetic portrayal of Suzie’s Afghan coworker Atal grounds the story by offering a much-needed reminder that the suffering of war doesn’t go away just because we stop paying attention.
The play’s most compelling moments come when Harbridge is alone on stage and we see the full extent of Suzie’s inner-turmoil. Harbridge throws herself into this gut-wrenching performance of a woman tormented by PTSD but in denial about her symptoms and determined to keep it together.
For me, Stop Girl is at its very best when Suzie is forced to wrestle with the contradictions of mental illness and hyper-productivity. Unlike her friend Bec, who has settled down and started a family, Suzie ranks her professional achievements higher than any of her personal relationships. This makes Suzie vulnerable when her deteriorating mental health leaves her unable to work but unwilling to open up and seek help. Even in the face of her massively deteriorating mental state, her primary concern is her productivity and her career as a journalist. It’s a damning look at the lack of care given to our journalists who risk their lives in war zones, only to be given minimal emotional support when they come home.
Stop Girl is a provocative reflection of what can happen when we succumb to the pressure to achieve at all costs, regardless of deteriorating health and mental health. In the age of the pandemic, where working from home is forcing the boundaries between our personal and professional lives to be blurred, the central message of Stop Girl—that your mental health is more important than any job—is not one to be neglected.
Jo Bradley is a Sydney-based writer, editor and director. Her full portfolio of reviews and essays can be found at her website scribblesofstageandscreen.com.