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Monday, 24 November 2014

BELVOIR’S ‘CINDERELLA’ dissected by me

Belvoir’s ‘Cinderella’, currently playing downstairs, is a contemporary retelling of a tale we’ve seen in many different forms, many different times. But Matthew Whittet’s version, directed by Anthea Williams and starring Whittet and Mandy McElhinney, is a nicely crafted combination of loneliness, hope, strength, fantasy and humour.

Taking the submissive heroine of the popular fairytale, our Cinderella, Ashley (McElhinney), is now a feisty middle-aged orphan and custodian of rescue cat, Pumpkin. Braving on-line dating, she goes to meet face-to-face with Richard (Whittet), gets spooked, runs off, leaving a shoe which is returned to her by Ash (Whittet) and thus the awakening of romance in its full sweet awkwardness from snorting rice, daggy dancing and their first physical encounter, is all wrapped up in a soundtrack from Hall and Oates.

Whittet’s ‘Cinderella’ is not afraid to subvert the genre by taking it back to some of the more interesting interpretations of the tale that make it far less Disney and more grief-stricken vigilante. There are lovely moments that remind us that women of all ages are as far-removed from the traditional stereotype as you can imagine. When Ashley confronts Ash about his preconceptions of what movies women like to watch or as she reimagines for us the story of how she rescued Pumpkin from the ugly step-mother and step-sisters, reinvented as local crazy lady and her two bully cats, we are taken on a new journey of the familiar but told as a gentle edict to pro-actively empower more than a passive wait for rescue.

But underlying this comic awkwardness of love- real and imagined, we witness a permeating sadness of loss, of trying to fill that gap, of fragility and the fear of embracing change and vulnerability with someone else. Williams manages to extract all of this from her cast and as Whittet playfully dances for the audience whilst removing his clothes, it certainly added to the delightful dagginess of the show. Both Whittet and McElhinney capture the dimensions of these characters and make us feel both warmth and pity for their plight.

Elizabeth Gadsby’s set, a carpeted transformative space, complete with cushions, gutter, falling leaves and a constantly ticking clock taking us closer and closer to midnight, manages to convey the romance, the reality and the tension of time. Kelly Ryall’s sound plays with nostalgia and the present, merging a soundtrack of a time long gone with the harsh realities of a time out of place now. Once I hear Hall and Oates, I know I’m in good hands.

There is a deceptive depth to this seemingly simple play. It’s lovely to watch and finishes on a note of hope. Its endearing cast offer us a piece of contemporary romance aimed squarely for all ages but allows the focus to resonate most with its demographic.

This was a very pleasant way to spend an evening.

MOPHEAD & CATNIP PRODUCTIONS’ ‘PLATONOV’ dissected by Rhiona

‘Platonov’ is Chekhov at his most raw, his most open, his most bare.

Chekhov examines the tensions between great love and lesser love. He allows his characters to tread on their hearts while he tugs at their strings.

At the centre of this drama, he leaves Mikhail Platonov- a young, middle-class intellectual ridden with restlessness.

The women around him are seduced by his liberality, but when they discover that what Platonov offers is not an alternate life but a darker existence plagued by cynicism, they are forced to reevaluate- often in the most brutal of ways.

This production, adapted and directed by Anthony Skuse, recontextualises the play from its rigid Russian origins to a more familiar setting. It is fresh and modern, and doesn’t shy away from Chekhov’s bold intentions. Chekhov highlights the boredom and monotony of Russian country life, and Skuse likens it to our unsettled and desire-driven world of today.

To accompany Skuse’ adaptation, Cat Dibley’s costume design is contemporary and easy-going. It didn’t feel forced or contrived, but rather made the production all the more fluid.

The folk music performed by the cast was moving, magical. It was a clever homage to Chekhov’s time and a thoughtful thoroughfare between the two contexts.

The space at ATYP was well used, with the actors performing between two banks of seating. It forced us to keep the other audience in view, and never fully released us from our present reality.

Chris Page’s lighting design was minimal but striking. The use of industrial lighting accompanied the weight of the play well and the spotlights were use appropriately.

Charlie Garber fit sublimely into the role of Platonov. He was easy-going and quick-witted and able to bear the brunt of the play on his shoulders. Playing his wife, Matilda Ridgway gave an endearing performance- she can be simple and naïve and sweet, and yet her strength and sensitivity is captivating.

Geraldine Hakewill also gave a charming performance in the role of Platonov’s early lover, Sofya, whom he returns to. She was delicate and deliberate in her performance. And to lift the weight of these characters, Jason Perini as Burov is unforgettable. Even in a smaller role he makes each moment memorable

The production breathes new life into Chekhov’s writing. It explores each angle and stretches it out to its full potential. Anthony Skuse and his committed cast gave ‘Platonov’ a second chance in life and love.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

NEW THEATRE’S ‘SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET’ dissected by me

The New Theatre hit pay dirt when new director on the local scene, Giles Gartrell-Mills put out the call for his cast for the last play of the New's season, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ because a heck of a lot of talent answered that call.

Perhaps it’s the lure of doing Sondheim for the talented ensemble they finally assembled but after a relatively good year, this is the show that will definitely fill the theatre with much kudos, cheer and hopefully cash. Given that acting in a New Theatre show is an act of love (ie- it ain’t a paid gig baby), from the opening moments, between the chipping paint and giant cockroaches scuttling to get in on the action, the wave of talent on stage smashes its audience in the face and we are sold on sitting through the next almost three hours with heady anticipation.

For those unfamiliar with ‘Sweeney Todd’, it is based on Christopher Bond’s play from a classic Victorian melodrama and converted into music, lyrics and libretto by Sondheim and Wheeler. It tells the story of our anti-hero, barber Benjamin Barker, now known as Sweeney Todd (Justin Cotta) who has returned to London after being unfairly transported to Australia fifteen years earlier, and rescued by sailor Anthony Hope (Josh Anderson) to seek revenge on the man who sent him there, Judge Turpin (Byron Watson). Of course, revenge is sweetest when it involves a companion, Mrs Lovett (Lucy Miller) to help you kill everyone who ever hurt you and anyone else whose cut of their jib sends your razor into a frenzy, and hell, while you’re on a killing spree, you may as well take economic advantage of it and thus Mrs Lovett’s pie shop is the perfect outlet to dispose of those bodies.

This play has genuinely funny moments, executed with great skill by its cast. It’s a tight, polished and energetic production and given I’d heard rumours of diva antics and clashing personalities in rehearsals, I was thrilled to see that none of that was evident in the show itself now it has an audience to channel its tempestuous tantrums. And it’s no secret that I’d rather have day surgery than sit through a musical but in ‘Sweeney Todd’ there’s a lovely variety in humour, drama and spectacle that keeps its audience entertained from start to finish and Sydney has convinced me that the quality of musical theatre has come a long way with companies like Squabbalogic raising the bar and now New Theatre's 'Sweeney Todd'.

Gartrell-Mills has created a series of impressive moving stage pictures in using Trent Kidd’s choreography and portable platforms on an encompassing dingy brown backdrop of Victorian London. Lighting designer Liam O’Keefe plays with the shadows of the characters through some interesting side-lighting and the dirt and grime of this city, referenced in one of the opening songs, resonates in its setting and costumes (Brodie Simpson).

But the real talent is in its cast. Justin Cotta, has mastered the art of playing a crazed maniac, perhaps not always contained to the stage but in ‘Sweeney Todd’ it has such energy and passion that even though it feels slightly over-cooked at times, I can’t think of any other role where it’s wholly appropriate than here.  He is well worth watching.

Other very notable mentions include Lucy Miller, whose comic timing as Mrs Lovett is impeccable. Miller has a terrific range but this is one of the strongest performances I’ve seen her give and she manages to manipulate the audience with her cheekiness, vulnerability and determination in role. Josh Anderson’s sweet melodic voice was one of the strongest in clarity and tone and his heroic and naïve Hope was well-matched in Jamie Leigh Johnson’s Johanna Barker, his love interest in the play. Byron Watson managed to evoke both disgust and lust, Courtney Glass as Beggar Woman captured the comedy and pathos but for me the stand out of the entire show with Miller is Simon Ward as Beadle Bamford. Ward fleshes out Bamford in accent, arrogance and action like a professional who’s been playing this role on stage for years. His control and timing take one of the smaller roles of the show and make him larger than life.


Although there are times in ‘Sweeney Todd’ when the lyrics get lost in clarity, it’s a tiny flaw in an excellent show. The supporting ensemble hammer it home, the music is well-executed and if you’re not devoured by the taped-up last-legs of the audience seats or knocked over by the killer cockroaches slowly eating their way through the women’s bathroom or hit accidently by a falling pastizzi post show by my friend Paula, this will be a highlight of your 2014 theatrical calendar. Don’t miss it. You don’t normally get to see theatre this good for these prices.

Monday, 10 November 2014

EPICENTRE THEATRE COMPANY'S 'Twelve Angry Men' dissected by Rhiona

Reginald Rose’s story of Twelve Angry Men is a story of ignorance and prejudice being overcome by courage and conviction. It is a story that challenges our assumptions and delves deep into issues of social justice. The year is 1954. It is summer in New York. It is the juror’s room, where twelve men are to come to a unanimous vote on a man’s life: innocent or guilty?

In the beginning, there is a near unanimous vote with the single exception of juror no.8 who urges the jury to consider an alternative, to question their conclusions. However, Richard Drysdale’s performance in this role seemed tired. To be fair though, most of the men delivered a rather uninspired performance.  

With the exception of juror no.3, 9 and 11(Enrico Babic, Tim Hunter, Darrell Hoffman) who all had impassioned and present performances, whenever a juror spoke it lacked impulse; it lacked motivation. It was as though each individual was waiting for their time to speak – anticipating it – rather than reacting to someone else’ argument. For this reason, I think this production is better titled Twelve Slightly Agitated Men. They were overheated and tired, but not passionate about their points of view.

So the characterisation seemed unanimous: they all seemed disgruntled. But that was about the only thing they all agreed on. We had accents from Sydney to San Antonio and suits from the 40s to today. Either/or would have been fine – it would be interesting to see a contemporary Australian adaptation of this play – but if your sole intention is to recreate the film, then you are going to encounter some problems. Especially, when not all of the cast can maintain an American accent.

These discrepancies were not only jarring in terms of cohesion, but it also meant the argument existed in a disputed time and place, which ultimately undermined the fundamental tension in the script. It felt unsettled for the wrong reasons.

Set designer George Cartledge went for a traditional approach, which was comfortable and familiar. However, the angle of the table lost half the jury’s faces, and seemed to be on the diagonal to “create interest”. It complicated the set and, had it been perpendicular to the audience, it would have visually supported the polarization suggested in the script.  

Moreover, although in theatre you don’t have the luxury of different camera angles and close ups, one has to trust that the writing will speak for itself in this regard.  The different points of view, the different arguments will suffice. They will create interest. Director Tonya Grelis seemed to be under the presumption that the piece sits down when you sit down, which in itself is a valid idea, but is to be taken with a grain of salt in a play that is performed around a table. Although some movement is granted, even indicated in the script, too much can be distracting and seems unnecessary.


Ultimately, the production felt like it papier mached the play. It seemed to be tapping on the shell of Rose’s writing, but never really pierced through to the core. It didn’t discover the catalyst for each line, the moments of impact that lead to each argument, the source of prejudice within each individual.

Friday, 31 October 2014

ENSEMBLE’S ‘BLUE/ORANGE’ dissected by me

Although my incessant squirming throughout the show because I find the seats at the Ensemble profoundly uncomfortable (and I probably have ADHD), Joe Penhall’s ‘Blue/Orange’, directed by Anna Crawford, is a very engaging examination of the bureaucracy of psychiatry and the relationships and consequences of those who practice and fall victims to it.

‘Blue/Orange’ starts with an excited Christopher (Dorian Nkono), about to be released after a 28 day stint in mandatory psychiatric care against his case worker’s advice, Bruce (Ian Meadows) and thus begins a conflict with his supervisor Robert (Sean Taylor). Politics abound and status shifts see us embroiled in not only questioning Christopher’s mental health but the sordid power-plays of those meant to be caring for the mentally ill. It’s a damning reflection on medical and office economics, authority, factionalism and an interesting form of psychological warfare.

This is a strong cast and they deliver Penhall’s script with professional ease. Crawford allows the humour and nuance to emerge amongst the satire and drama of the unfolding events. The beautiful interplay between Meadows and Taylor as their relationship turns sour and dimensions of character escalate as we see them journey from professional discussions into professional assassination. Nkono’s Christopher also finds a grounding in his energy and focus that allows his actions and character to show great conviction and make us question the nature of his illness and let us dance on the precipice of diagnosis until the play’s natural conclusion allows us to swing more definitely in one direction.

There is plenty of tension in this wordy play and yet each phrase captures the essence of action inherent in the intentions of each character.  Tobhiyah Stone Feller’s set, especially expressed in the ink blot style Rorschach test, glowing with a blue/orange hue from Christopher Page’s lighting design (see what they did there- clever indeed) thrusts us into the psychology of this play and to place our own symbolic meaning on its context and what we see when we look at the visual world of the mise-en-scene provided to us in that moment.


‘Blue/Orange’ should be another crowd pleaser for Ensemble and this one has plenty of substance and appeal and is backed up by a great production in cast, design and direction. If you haven’t made the trip to the Ensemble yet this year, this is the one to get to. No test required and no mandatory detention or therapy needed post show. 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

ACT IV’S ‘FIVE WOMEN WEARING THE SAME DRESS’ dissected by me

At the Tap Gallery, the show really starts in the foyer. Not officially, of course, but between the shelves of second hand books, the eclectic seating, the ragamuffin accessories and collectables and a proprietor who happily converses, monologue-style, with all who enter, make me feel as if the play on offer actually runs second billing to the pre-show entertainment. Last night I learnt, in this order, all about Lucy, the chimpanzee, who wanted to have sex with humans and thought she was human and was released, disastrously, back into the wild and that the council have ruled that the performance space at the Tap must close in a week as the permit has been revoked. I realise that Alan Ball’s play ‘Five Women Wearing the Same Dress’ might be the last show we see at the Tap and pray it serves its space well.

Act IV, boasts it “is a female-run company with a passion for thought-provoking theatre, exploring and celebrating stories about being a woman”. It is an admirable mission indeed. Employing director Deborah Jones to take the four founding members of the company with the rest of its cast into the world of Ball’s play (from Six Feet Under and American Beauty fame) was a much bigger mission that didn’t always work but for the most part, captured the witty essence of Ball’s work.

‘Five Women Wearing the Same Dress’ tells the story of five Knoxville bridesmaids, dressed in the taffeta glory reminiscent of bad weddings in the 1980’s and 90’s and as each of the bridesmaids take solace in the bride’s younger sister’s room, they reveal their desires, celebrate their identity, bemoan their situations and bitch tirelessly about their dislike for the bride, about men and sometimes about themselves. One of Alan Ball’s early works, it still contains the humour and depth we see in his later work but a little less defined and its ending still relies on the presence of a man coming to the rescue of a woman, insinuating that women don’t really know what they want. It’s a little anti-climatic but there’s a lot there that takes it beyond its ending.

There’s a considerable amount of ‘acting’ happening on stage and if you can see it, it’s not quite working as a believable piece of theatre. The reality is that these founding members have been miscast for this play and so as their characters, they don’t always capture the complexity of their characters and lack conviction. Add to that, there’s a mistimed rhythm that drags out the dialogue and allows gaping holes between lines that are as large as the taffeta sleeves on those dresses. It means that the first half in particular feels contrived, rehearsed and static. Jones needs to try to overcome some acting issues by pumping out the pace of that action and not allowing all the ‘face-acting’, props-playing and staring off into space that make us acutely aware of the limitations of her cast.

But there are times when the play steams along and is relatively engaging (except when the air conditioning is off and I’m sweating like the sixth bridesmaid in taffeta). By far the strongest of the cast is Eleanor Ryan as Mindy, lesbian sister to the groom. She had belief and integrity in the role and managed to find the comic timing without overworking it. Kaitlin DeLacy (Meredith) had moments, especially when accessing the high emotions like anger but didn’t find the tension and conviction needed in her revelation to make that work quite as well. Mel Ryan(Trisha) also found moments of subtlety but the lack of sexual tension between her and Nadim Accari (Tripp) was disappointing, given its importance to end the character's journey. But for the most part, they carried the play and gave their audience of friends and family a show that they enjoyed.

Production values are always going to be compromised at the Tap- it’s essentially a four day run in a lounge room space with limited technological resources. But designers Gloria Bava (costumes) and Tristan Carey (set) create more than ample opportunities to allow the visual effrontery of those dresses to tell us everything we need to know about the bride, the wedding and its desired effect of humiliating the women and the space in which they find themselves.

I have to commend Act IV for attempting to find plays that allow women to take the stage and deal with gender issues and equity. But they do need to keep honing their craft if they want to sustain that vision beyond their network of supporters. ‘Five Women Wearing the Same Dress’ goes some way to delivering that ideal but still has some way to go.


Monday, 27 October 2014

GRIFFIN THEATRE’S ‘EMERALD CITY’ dissected by me

There’s nothing more I enjoy than a trip down the memory lane of the 1980’s. The decadence, the fashion, the music, the hedonism, are all traits that are recorded in pictorial glamour of my own teenage years during that decade. And when I say glamour, I mean downright tragic choices burned into the pages of my photo albums.

Griffin’s production of David Williamson’s ‘Emerald City’, with its Ken Done surround set-scapes, pays homage to the hits and the colourful brush strokes of themes such as the portrayal of money over morals. Encapsulating Sydney at the time, the play features its own tragic choices of an era that couldn’t sustain itself and lived on a diet of pills, pomposity and speculation. Williamson’s ‘Emerald City’ is the story of Melbourne couple Colin (Mitchell Butel) and Kate (Lucy Bell), who move to Sydney for work and struggle to adjust to Sydney’s ruthless pursuit of the dollar over integrity and each have to make choices about how to survive and adapt. Amongst that, they meet Mike (Ben Winspear), whose lack of talent is no hindrance to his ambition and he soon overleaps obstacles of expectations by selling out the Australian Identity to acquire the Australian Dream of that ‘place near the harbour’. Described as ‘part love letter and part hate mail to the harbour city’, it is indeed both of those things.

This is classic Williamson which means that there is plenty of wit and plot intrigue but there’s a little something missing in regards to emotion. Williamson is the sledgehammer of political playwrights. What he lacks in subtlety he makes up for in humour and social satire. There are genuine moments of laughter that come out of this play, even if the relationships feel more transactional than truthful. 

Butel and Bell bring an air of Melbourne superiority to their characters and tackle the tension of the clash of cultures and the status transition of their marriage with the skill of actors who have been at the top of their game for a long time. Winspear’s Mike was not so deftly portrayed. Replacing Marcus Graham in the last stages of rehearsal (does anyone else have a problem imagining Graham as Mike?), Winspear’s strained accent felt like he was pushing too hard. Director Lee Lewis should have helped him pull back as Mike is already ‘overpainted’, like a Done harbour portrait, and it meant that the gruff confident idiocy of Mike becomes a caricature of himself in a world where he was already bordering on that anyway. It’s too much and at times, hard to watch. Jennifer Hagan’s Elaine captured the comedy and has some of the best lines. Pity Hagan didn’t always land them and there were some flustered moments when it looked as if the actors were line grabbing to get back on track. Kelly Paterniti as Helen read as a young casting choice and gave an interesting dramatic interpretation to the seedy superficiality of Sydney when the ingénue lusted after by the men of the play looks barely legal. But Williamson at least gives some intelligence and depth to his female characters in ‘Emerald City’ and the direct audience addresses do go some way to expressing vulnerability and intentions as the plot unfolds.

The first thing that does catch your eye as you walk into the space is the Ken Done design, done by the Done himself. It’s as colourful as you remember and captures the Australian kaleidoscope of light, bright, gaudy glamour of the era. Sophie Fletcher’s costumes, by contrast, try to tone down the excess of the era by giving a stylish sense of the time- lacking in pretension and playing to the alternative artsy intelligence of Melbournian orphans in the social cyclone of Sydney. Whilst the costumes don’t speak specifically of the time, the set well and truly does all the work and allows for a subdued design vision in other areas.

Lewis has given a faithful rendition of a Williamson classic and apart from refining some of the bigger and brasher choices that push the play into one-dimensional -stereotypes (more Warwick Capper than Christopher Skase), she’s made a good fist of it.


It’s good to see the season finish with an old-school Australian play that reminds us of our canon of classics and our theatrical and social history.