top of page

Highway of Lost Hearts - Riverside Theatres (NSW)

By Mary Anne Butler. With original live music by Smith & Jones

Highway of Lost Hearts is worth stepping outside your comfort zone. You never know what you might find on the journey.

Reviewed by Bradley Ward

National Theatre of Parramatta

14-15 June

Lights down. A haunting melody carried across a duet of voices. Then, the warm light of an Australian afternoon shining upon a lone woman with her meagre belongings. This is how Highway of Lost Hearts begins, and it sets a clear precedent for how it intends to continue:  just a couple of voices, a sparse set, and warmth – warmth despite everything.


Highway of Lost Hearts is a new Australian work from Mary Anne Butler, an award-winning playwright who has made a name for herself these last few years producing works that are deeply sincere but unmistakably Australian. Her newest work introduces us to Mot: a woman on a journey to recover her missing heart by trekking across Australia with her somewhat-trusty van and loveable dog. Along the way she encounters natural disasters, unnatural occurrences, quirky travellers, and a plethora of painful memories.

The entire piece is slow and poetic, trading heavily in allegory, and frequently introducing elements of magical realism. It’s also fresh and exciting and well worth your time.

Highway of Lost Hearts, Riverside Theatres (2024). Images: Hannah Groggan

While theatre is a collaborative artform, one-person shows can live or die on the shoulders of their performer. A few opening night line stumbles aside, lead actress Kate Smith handles her mammoth task with aplomb. She steadfastly avoids spectacle or stereotype, never turning Mot or the multitudinous other characters she voices into parodies of regional Australians. She delivers the text with all the nuance and sensitivity that it requires, bringing humanity to supernatural events and exposing the danger behind mundane interactions.

In a lesser actor’s hands, this text could have felt fractured. There are plenty of moments where a heavy hand could have caused tonal whiplash. Kate is gentle and exact. By the end of the show not only does the text feel safe in Kate’s hands, but so does the audience. I would follow Mot anywhere.

...fresh and exciting and well worth your time.

Of course, this isn’t quite a one-person production: Kate is joined onstage by the musical duo of Smith & Jones, whose pitch-perfect harmonies inhabit multiple roles throughout the show. They are sometimes backing track; sometimes musical interlude; sometimes chorus; and sometimes bodies and sound to which Kate can respond. They provide a stunning backdrop to the piece, squeezing a surprising amount of musical variety out of two voices and two instruments. The track list isn’t always what you expect, but that is part of the charm. It keeps you on your toes, and leaning in to hear what comes next.

Designers Annemaree Dalziel and Becky Russell have the unenviable task of balancing the uncanny world that this play inhabits with the strict material realities of being a touring production. The design is simple yet efficient: three small set pieces for Mot to interact with and some billowing sheer sheets that cut across the stage in sharp angles, physically separating the protagonist from the musicians.

It may not sound like much in writing, but it is undeniably effective. Each piece has its purpose and contributes to the visual language of the piece to such an extent that I found myself reacting quite viscerally when the performers broke from the established language. When the musicians briefly breached the sheer barrier separating them from Mot, I audibly gasped. Who needs spectacle when you’ve got clear and consistent visual language? Not me, apparently.

...keeps you on your toes, and leaning in to hear what comes next.

Despite all this praise, it should be made clear that this production will not appeal to everyone. For those looking for clear structure and narrative simplicity, this show likely will not satisfy. While the show is ostensibly about a physical journey, it’s clear the artists involved are more interested in taking us on an emotional and psychological one. For those whose theatrical diet consists of big budget stage productions, this touring production is stripped back and uninterested in overloading the senses. Even its emotional peaks and are approached steadily, wholly unlike the extreme fervour of a Tennessee Williams play or modern musical. If you’re opposed to confronting subject matter, there are some topics at play in Highway of Lost Hearts that could catch you by surprise. Their portrayal is in no way graphic, but the conversations are honest. Death, sex work, womanhood, and the fear of violence all find their place in this world.

If none of the caveats listed above give you pause, then find this show the next time it goes on tour. It’s a beautiful hour-long journey through a landscape and people that both carry deep scars. So much of our national theatrical identity is defined by voices like David Williamson and Simon Stone, producing works steeped in masculinity, physical violence, and middleclass identity. Highway of Lost Hearts holds none of that sacred. It is poetic and experimental; full of working-class voices; charming and funny; deeply sad at times yet ultimately hopeful. If any of the caveats of the previous paragraph did concern you, I encourage you to try this show anyway.

This show contains a couple dozen different stories, each of them full of heart. Even if the entire show doesn’t connect with you, the likelihood is you’ll find something special to take away from the experience. Highway of Lost Hearts is worth stepping outside your comfort zone. You never know what you might find on the journey.


Playwright Mary Anne Butler

Director Adam Deusien

Designer Annemaree Dalziel

Lighting & Technical Design Becky Russell

Set Designers Annemaree Dalziel & Becky Russell

Stage Manager Madelaine Osborn

Live original music Smith & Jones

Photo Credit Phil Blatch & Margaret Hogan


Performed by Kate Smith, Sophie Jones & Abby Smith


Theatre Thoughts Podcast Alternative Logo

Theatre News

bottom of page