From 1934 to 1942, the body of a woman found dressed in yellow silk pyjamas was kept preserved. Thousands of people looked at her as she lay – firstly, in a bath of ice in Albury and later, in a bath of formaldehyde, at Sydney University. But who was she?
The young woman’s body was found on September 1, 1934, by a farmer, Tom Griffith, who was walking his bull near Albury in NSW. The body, with a bullet in the neck, had been pushed into a culvert under the road.
The young woman was wearing yellow silk pyjamas with a Chinese dragon on them, considered exotic in Depression-era Australia, so the media quickly labelled her the “Pyjama Girl.” The case, described as "one of the most baffling murders that has ever confronted the police of this State", was constantly in the newspapers. Police followed all sorts of leads, even tracking down every woman under 40 who hadn’t voted in the Federal election the weekend after the body was found.
The ongoing investigation and mystery is well documented and I encourage you to do your own research and you may, too, be seduced by this gruesome piece of Australian true crime history. That it happened and its outcomes have been the inspiration for a handful of minor plays, films, and musicals. Ant this most recent version “Pyjama Girl: Who Speaks for the Dead?” comes to Sydney via Wollongong from company Players in Exile.
Writer and director Stephen Goldrick imagines the story as a cabaret style event with The Pyjama Girl, Lina Agositini, removing herself from the tub of formaldehyde to reveal the mystery of her death. Composer and Music Director Steve Wood – a veteran of the theatre scene – creates some great tunes and provides extensive underscore from the keyboard as the story unfolds. A small ensemble makes up the cast. Notably, Julia Pierrette plays The Pyjama Girl with style and a knowing wink to the audience. She sings and moves well and is a name to watch. Her work felt original. Babette Shaw is Moya Stanley and intrepid reporter and the voice of the people. Veering towards cliché at times, she does, however, help drive the story with clarity.
On the edge of unintended comedy is the initial image of The Pyjama Girl in a liquid bath. For this production: a clear plastic tub of water in which the actor floats. It’s an image that potentially holds many resonances for this gruesome story of lies and violence. No sooner had the body entered the tub, the actor was climbing out in front of our eyes and then proceeded through the show’s entirety dripping wet and bedraggled. The application of trauma makeup was disconcerting. The idea is challenging to pull off and in this cabaret style musical perhaps it was misguided.
It's interesting to look back at the somewhat “primitive” techniques of crime solving from the earlier twentieth century. But this is a story of a violent domestic crime unsolved and disputed. It’s a great idea to give The Pyjama Girl agency and reclaim her identity. In this work, it remains an idea. This is a story that doesn’t have a happy ending in the context of souring gendered domestic abuse in Australia. And the subject needs careful consideration if it’s to be of a musical.