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Monday, 15 December 2014

ENSEMBLE THEATRE’S ‘ABSENT FRIENDS’

I think I’ve seriously underestimated Alan Ayckbourn after I was subjected to dodgy amateur outings of his plays in my younger days. But the Ensemble Theatre have done their best to quiet the cynic in me in their production of ‘Absent Friends’, Ayckbourn’s 1974 satire on the disappointments of marriage and identity.

The first thing that strikes you about the play is the classic 1970’s set and costumes, designed by Ensemble favourite, Anna Gardiner, combined with a soundtrack of the era, epitomized in the sounds of Skyhooks, raw enough to be dirty and tongue-in-cheek to capture Ayckbourn’s damning indictment of relationships where one person has all the power and the other is the martyr of their own making.

‘Absent Friends’ explores three couples, Diana (Michelle Doake) and Paul (Richard Sydenham), Marge (Queenie Van de Zandt) and Gordon, (absent) and Evelyn (Jessica Sullivan) and John (Brian Meegan). They have gathered to await the return of old friend Colin (Darren Gilshenan) after the death of his fiancé, with a promise to offer him comfort and support. During the course of the evening each couple hits an inevitable marriage crisis and suddenly Colin, who is upbeat, demonstrating positivity towards the quality time spent with his now absent love, is the only one whose future offers a glimmer of avoiding a complete nervous breakdown.

Director Mark Kilmurry has produced a tight, clever comedy and has chosen a cast worthy of hitting each note. I could be content watching Doake open a tin can on stage, such is the depth of her talent but the show was stolen by Van de Zandt, whose Marge was part desperation, part maternal and part crazy cat lady (but insert Gordon for cat). Gilshenan will always please and Meegan and Sullivan gave fine performances. And although I can find Sydenham a bit wooden, his arrogance as Paul was captured suitably and he is infinitely unlikeable.


This play is another great choice for the Ensemble and as an independent company with no government funding, I think we often take for granted the quality of what they produce. They are by far one of Sydney’s most impressive independent theatre companies and this show is a win for couples of all ages and for smug singles who have avoided matrimony. 

Monday, 1 December 2014

DAVID CALLAN’S ‘I SPIED’ dissected by Rhiona

The poster for David Callan’s 'I Spied' suggests a certain kind of camp comedy- a slapstick romp through the world of espionage, complete with inappropriate depictions of terrorists and all the worst bits of Get Smart. The poster, fortunately, is entirely misleading.

‘I Spied’ is based on Callan’s experiences as a former employee of ASIO, combining anecdotes with moments of mime, absurdist and dark humour.

One of my favourite moments caught me in the second half when he compares ASIO to the arts, and terrorist organisations to theatre companies; he likens STC to Al Qaeda because they’re major and noteworthy, and Boko Haram to Bangarra “because no one’s really sure what they’re on about, but we know they’re important.”

Indeed, it is in these moments where Callan allows the darker shades of his comedy to appear that the show really hits its stride and are the show’s highlights. Not all of Callan’s jokes hit but when they did, they really did.

Therein lies one of the issues with ‘I Spied’- it never seems to fully be aware of what sort of show it wants to be, and its attempts to please everyone can leave it feeling hollow on occasion. The show opens with mimed escapades and a sketch- neither of which are styles touched upon again. Both are well performed and enjoyable, but slightly stall the show from finding its footing.

Callan is undeniably a true and quick-witted showman, and the show is a fine piece of comedy that simply needs a more focused approach.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

BELVOIR’S ‘A CHRISTMAS CAROL’ dissected by me

We’ve seen the story a thousand times before but there’s something affirming about watching redemption and reinvention, wrapped in a Christmas bow of hope that never really gets tired. Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks have appropriated the Christmas classic from Charles Dickens and given it a new (old) outing on the Belvoir stage and filled the stage stocking with an enjoyable piece of harmless theatre for young and old.

Directed by Sarks and performed by a more than able cast, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is that practical and reliable gift you get that may not have been at the top of your wish list but never-the-less, it is not unwelcome to see a play that requires nothing more of you than to sit back, embrace the sentimentality, listen to a few carols, watch the trickery of the stage serve its narrative master and then leave with a smile on your face.

Starting with Ebenezer Scrooge (Robert Menzies) hunched over his desk on Christmas Eve, whilst Bob Cratchit (Steve Rodgers) sits quietly and tidies up after all the unwelcome visitors who face the wrath of Scrooge’s lack of cheer and compassion, the scene is set. That night Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his old business partner Marley (Peter Carroll) before being supernaturally thrust into Christmas past (Ivan Donato), present (Kate Box) and future (Miranda Tapsell), and the rest, you know.

This is a family friendly tale and there are lovely moments of staging and design. Mel Page’s costumes give the play a sense of fun, especially with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Kate Box, who captured the joy of the role in her tinsel glory. Michael Hankin’s set used the devices of the raised floor to create traps and hidey holes to emerge and disappear and try to create an element of surprise. Stefan Gregory also tries to give it an edge of terror in his sound design, as the voices of the ghosts bounce around the stage.

There’s a chance for the audience to laugh at the play’s mischievousness with the buckets of snow and wayward apples and other times when we are moved by its heart and warmth, especially with Tiny Tim (Miranda Tapsell).  

You could do much worse than seeing ‘A Christmas Carol’. It’s exactly what you’d expect and kids will love it. For a more discerning audience member, you may be left wanting a bit more out of your money as it's a tinsel piece of fluff (bah humbug) but at least, it will leave you feeling good about the world for a little moment in time.


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

STC’S ‘CYRANO DE BERGERAC’ dissected by me

Hot on the heels of Sport for Jove’s epic and excellent production of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ only late last year, it was a bold move by STC to program it into their 2014 season. But with Richard Roxburgh and Ryan Corr (later ‘unavailable’ and replaced by Chris Ryan), it felt like it was a risk that should pay off and indeed, they were right.

The problems with this play aren’t in this production as much as they are inherent in the play itself, even with the much needed edits. Spoiler alert: let’s go to the ending. Why do we feel disappointed by it? Is it because we want a happy ending (not in a sleazy massage kind of way but one that rewards duty and love) or is it that even at the end, when Cyrano could confess his feelings for Roxanne, he looks outward and not inward and we feel cheated for her as much as for him? Or is it that the death scene feels far too long and stilted? Whatever the case, it feels like something is missing in ‘Cyrano’.

But what isn’t missing is the sense of fun imbued throughout this manly adventure of courage, convictions, loyalty and love. Director Andrew Upton has given us an active and playful rendition of Rostand’s play (tweaked by Upton and Marion Potts in adaptation), complete with an Australian flavour of language and phrase.

Roxburgh (Cyrano) is equal parts mischievous saviour, romantic hero and intellectual elitist. He is filled with the crippling self-doubts that we are all in danger of feeding and yet his steadfast love for Roxane (Eryn Jean Norvill), make him both admirable and frustrating. Cyrano as a character will not allow himself to tread softly upon the world and instead kicks at it as much as he can because he can never succumb to the vulnerability of love and possible rejection and it hardens him. It is no wonder that he makes enemies from the start and Roxburgh makes us love Cyrano as well as want to lecture him, as does his best friend, Le Bret (Yalin Ozucelik- who played Cyrano in the Sport for Jove production).

The cast is well-assembled and there are plenty of moments to shine.  Alan Dukes as Montfleury ham-acting and swinging across the stage, Dale March’s sword-play arrogance as Valvert, Julia Zemiro’s comic timing as Duenna, Chris Ryan’s Christian, the dumbstruck lover , David Whitney as poet Ragueneau and the Ode to Almond Tarts, Norvill as word-obsessed Roxane or Bruce Spence as drunkard Ligniere all offered a great support to Roxburgh and stepped up to match him in energy and intensity. But Josh McConville brought a little something more than that as De Guiche in finding the commedia, starting like an Il Capitano, transitioning into a courageous soldier and leader and then finishing in stark realism. It shows McConville has great range and formidable skill.

Alice Babidge has created a story book set that allows us to close the curtain on each act like a grandiose play until eventually, we are stripped of the trappings of the stage, the leaves have fallen on our autumn, the space is bare and black and we wait for the inevitable denouement. Babidge’s costumes are just as grand, contrasting the scruffy rogue of Cyrano with the pomposity of the elite, making it even easier for us to identify with the common man who will give his pay for the sake of art but like a version of the Robin Hood story, never look to take advantage of those below him.

Damien Cooper's lights are almost a character in this play too. The images created in the shafts of directed light that heighten tension, space and the emotions of the play are a visual feast of ideas. As the stage segue ways from war into fourteen years later, a trick of leaves with a complete transition of lights, leaving Roxane on stage, front and centre, is a powerful metaphor for the woman who is left in the light, a tiny shaft of light, whilst the rest of her world has gone dark. 

Cyrano is our underdog and perhaps that’s why we want more from its ending. But the production does the best it can with the stakes it’s been given. Sometimes it's a little clunky and sometimes deliciously naughty, 'Cyrano de Bergerac' delivers a message about superficiality and surprisingly, it is most damning of the presumption of it more than the reality.

STC’s ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ is a fine production of this play and is sure to keep its audience happy.


THE GENESIAN THEATRE’S ‘AMADEUS’ dissected by Rhiona

The story of Amadeus begins with Antonio Salieri, a well-known composer of the early 19th Century who, on his deathbed, declares that he murdered Mozart. It is an interesting tale filled with jealousy, questioning of faith and crippling despair. And yet, this production only really managed to grapple with a few of those key concepts. All the elements were there, but the stakes just weren’t high enough.

We begin the play with Venticello and Venticella, the court whims who are gossiping about the news. That was probably the most interesting part of the play. They were vibrant and energized but that’s all you needed from them.

In terms of the design, I’m unsure- were the few too many beauty spots deliberate? Were the miscellaneous chairs a choice or budget problem? It didn’t feel intentional enough so it almost seemed like a mistake. And that can be said for the details of costumes and the set. I can assume that the imperfection is a comment on the rancor of the period, or perhaps a metaphor for the rotten state of the society; the imperfection reflects the decay of harmony. Maybe, but I’m not convinced.

There was an interesting dynamic between Jasper Garner-Gore as Mozart and Nicole Wineberg as Constanze- a playful and childlike interaction that made for a few brief laughs. But it lacked substance, it lacked another dimension. It was slapstick and foolish, which one might argue is Mozart’s character. But I think the play becomes more interesting when Salieri has to fight for us to favour his plight.

Salieri in this production was played by Nick Hunt, who brings a rather Faustian element to the story. He delivered a very strong performance and yet the production didn’t support him.

One of the production’s major downfalls was the music. In a play that centres around the works of great composers, it was a shame to see Elia Bosshard as Katherina Cavalieri miming, poorly, to an aria. If lip-syncing was the ONLY option, maybe listening to the music and attempting to make similar vowel shapes would be a good idea.

The Genesian’s performance of Amadeus fell short. In many ways it just feels ambitious. Too much time spent on costume and set design, meant characterisation felt underdone. The production had a few strengths but were sadly overshadowed by a lack of attention to detail.

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.