Cen­tre stage in Light­ning Ridge

A unique piece of out­back theatre en­ter­tains vis­i­tors to NSW’S fa­mous opal fields

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - SUE MILNE

A LARGE and lus­trous black opal, shot through with streaks of red, yel­low, green and blue, hangs from a sim­ple chain around the neck of Gale Collins, the Black Queen of Light­ning Ridge.

Aside from this stun­ning gem, she is clad all in black, with dark hair and eyes, but Gale’s smile is sunny as she wel­comes our group of about 20 to the home she shares with her hus­band, Roger, on the opal fields that sur­round this small min­ing town in out­back NSW, about 60km south of the Queens­land bor­der.

Roger, who has col­lected us from our var­i­ous mo­tels and camp sites in a cour­tesy bus, fades into the back­ground as Gale takes cen­tre stage, quite lit­er­ally, for we are here for a unique the­atri­cal per­for­mance, Legacy: The Gift of Light. And while the star oozes con­fi­dence, I sense the au­di­ence is a lit­tle ner­vous, for we re­ally don’t know what to ex­pect.

It is the start of an evening full of sur­prises and the first is that the Collinses’ home — three sep­a­rate build­ings on a min­ing lease about 3km from town — is con­structed of 14,000 coloured bot­tles set into con­crete.

Gale ush­ers us into the main cot­tage and I’m charmed by this tiny space, which is both home and theatre. There’s a small kitchen, a cosy liv­ing room with an open fire, and a be­d­room, and all is neat and in its way re­mark­ably stylish: it is no sur­prise to dis­cover she was once a suc­cess­ful Syd­ney de­signer.

We lis­ten mes­merised as Gale launches into the cou­ple’s ex­tra­or­di­nary story: of how they stum­bled upon the cot­tage seven years ago while ex­plor­ing the opal fields on a hol­i­day; how they were in­vited in­side by its feisty el­derly owner, Joan An­drews, who was ea­ger to sell; and how Gale re­alised, with ab­so­lute cer­tainty, that this place had fig­ured in her dreams since her teenage years in Wis­con­sin, US.

Gale makes us laugh, de­scrib­ing how she per­suaded Roger to swap their city life­style for a bot­tle cot­tage on a Light­ning Ridge back­block, and makes us cry when she de­scribes her re­cent bat­tle with life- threat­en­ing ill­ness. And she sends shiv­ers down our spines re­count­ing the par­al­lels be­tween her life and that of An­drews, who in 1982, although des­per­ately ill, built the house in an act of self-heal­ing.

The au­di­ence de­camps to an ad­join­ing build­ing for the show’s sec­ond act. Act three, with an abrupt change of mood, takes place in the mu­seum of light, which houses the cou­ple’s col­lec­tion of an­tique lamps.

Thanks to Gale’s elo­quence, the lamps, which span 4500 years, re­veal not only their fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ries but their ex­quis­ite beauty. And, with dark­ness fall­ing over the silent opal fields, she brings down the cur­tain on a per­for­mance that has re­ceived nu­mer­ous tourism awards.

I spend the rest of the evening with Gale and Roger, savour­ing the de­li­cious meal he has cooked while she has been en­ter­tain­ing us, and watch­ing the fire­light flicker on the bot­tles set into the walls. It’s strange and won­der­ful and I feel a long way from home.

An­drews told the cou­ple that a mag­nif­i­cent opal lies be­neath their home, and of this Gale is sure. The search is be­gin­ning, with old dig­gings on their lease about to be re-ex­plored. Per­haps an­other chap­ter in the life of the leg­endary Black Queen is about to be writ­ten. Sue Milne was a guest of Des­ti­na­tion NSW.

Gale Collins per­forms Legacy: The Gift of Light

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