Theatre Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words

A standing ovation for the marvelous opening night performance of The Dictionary of Lost Words at Dunstan Playhouse Theatre.

Based on the international best-selling novel by South Australian Pip Williams’, The Dictionary of Lost Words is a coproduction by the State Theatre Company of South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company. The award-winning book has been brought to life on stage by South Australian playwright Verity Laughton, and directed by Jessica Arthur.

The story is of the life of Esme Nicholl (Tilda Cobham-Hervey, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, I am Woman); a young girl who we see over the years grow into a young woman. Esme spends much of her early life under the table in the Scriptorium – otherwise known as the Scippy, where her father is employed to compile the first Oxford English Dictionary. It is here where our story begins in 1886 with Esme a motherless four year girl, who steals treasures in the form of slips of discarded words.

The performance by Adelaide-born lead Cobham-Hervey is heart wrenching and convincing – you feel her grief and her joy right alongside her. Raw and confronting at times; acting at its finest.

The set by Jonathon Oxlade is simple yet intricate – a giant bookcase with a staircase lines the stage and creates a two storied set. At first, the ground floor is the Scriptorium and on the second floor, the bedroom of maid and friend, Lizzie (Rachel Burke). The bookcase remains throughout the performance, and through the use of creative props, AV and lights, turns into a market, a bar, private homes and more.

What stood out the most were the audiovisuals – positioned above the second story, creating a third layer to the set. A camera propped on the table of the set were projecting in real time, it was used to narrate scenes and add an artistic touch to the performance. These visuals, stitched seamlessly together with the use of lighting designed by Trent Suidgeest and music by Max Lyandvert, evoked powerful, emotive scenes.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is a showcase of South Australian talent from the State Theatre Company to author Williams, playwright Laughton, and actors Cobham-Hervey and Burke (and I am sure more!). How wonderful that our state has gotten behind these locals and supported them in droves – it’s the first-ever State Theatre Company performance to sell out before opening night!

The Dictionary of Lost Words is a story about love, loss and grief, and about women’s lives at the turn of the 20th century that can still be felt today. About how women are silenced through patriarchy and made to feel invisible – “my invisible girl” Esme’s dad dotingly called her. A tale of lost words and the women that spoke them.

But it’s more than that too, it’s about being found; forging a path and leaving a mark in the world that wants to eat you up and spit you out. From Lizzie’s needle work, to Esme’s words and Tilda’s (Angela Mahlatjie) quest for the vote for women, these women left a legacy that shouts “I was here!”.

A truly impactful and important story about the lives of women. Not to be missed!

The Dictionary of Lost Words is playing at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, until October 14th – the State Theatre Company has released additional seats with restricted views.

Image credit: Sam Roberts


We would like to acknowledge the Kaurna people as the custodians of the lands and waters of the Adelaide region.

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