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Sunday, 25 January 2015

URBAN THEATRE PROJECT’S ‘BANKSTOWN LIVE’ dissected by me

Having heard of ‘Minto Live’ and the Urban Theatre Project’s (UTP) work, I was curious how this whole things works- months of community liaison to create a cultural and experiential street party. After attending their latest project, ‘Bankstown Live’, I can tell you that it’s a vibrant and diverse insight into not only the local area but also the integrity of UTP in finding authentic voices and expressions of the flavor and colour of the community and respecting the stories and benefits they bring. ‘Bankstown Live’ is raw, ragged and real.

Northam St in Bankstown provides our backdrop. Closed off to traffic and filled with beach chairs and seats, you move between people’s yards, footpaths and tree-lined street to engage with any of the nine activities taking place over the four hours. It’s well organized and even though there are glitches, like crackling headphones on the pre-recorded monologues from ‘The Last Word’ or the visuals and/or sound dropping out every now and again, it only adds to the experience of live community theatre and technical issues are soon resolved from the diligent staff on hand. Add to that, the chance to eat local specialties and a sneaky ice cream makes for a great way to further the delights of the area.

It all kicks off with the scaffold of a house carried down the street by some of the night’s performers, lead by an Aboriginal elder, paying tribute to country and those past and present with a smoking ceremony.

When Emma Saunders’ piece began, using local the Vietnamese community dancing on the street, it was endearingly charming and the warmth of support for the challenge of publicly displaying and coordinating their work was both beautiful in its awkwardness and commitment.  The live music supplied by Toby Martin and guests was a lovely touch and had a CD been on sale, I would have happily snapped one up.

I also appreciated the 'Family Portraits' section of the night, where local activists or personalities set up their lounge room on the street and you get to converse with them about whatever takes your fancy- family, politics, culture. I had the pleasure of talking to Wafa Ziam (and the privilege of tasting some of the best coffee I’ve ever had, made by Wafa. Apparently the secret is the cardamom). We talked about issues for women in the local area, which seems to be the story for women everywhere, reminding us all that Bankstown is not so different as the suburb each of us have come from to attend the event tonight.

UTP also featured their film, ‘Bre and Back’  directed by Rosie Dennis. Projected in the middle of the street onto its calico backdrop, it was a moving tribute to two families, four women, and the relationships of mother and daughter. There was humour- I still have the line uttered by Noeleen Shearer, “Don’t need a fishing licence, we’re Aboriginal” in the context of the film a terrific reminder that law and culture have such beautiful contradictions. As a piece here, it felt slightly out of place but it's such a good piece of work, it didn't seem to matter. 

One of the highlights of the night is Mohammed Ahmed’s performance of his book, ‘The Tribe’, devised by Ahmed and Janice Muller. It is worth joining the long line to enter the backyard of 156 Northam Ave to catch his exemplary storytelling and enter the world of growing up in his family’s tribe. Transformational, rhythmic and at times, non-linear, Ahmed weaves stories of his grandmother and family that echo his unique experiences with our own and we are totally engaged.

'Lullaby Movement' by Sophia Brous and guests was a haunting finish to the night and as quiet descended on the neighbourhood, her singing was joined by the crying of babies, of excited local children in their pyjamas coming to investigate the siren song and all noises blended to create a multi-dimensional soundtrack to the night. 


‘Bankstown Live’ is much more than a piece of theatre. It’s a thought-provoking artistic community vision of cultural understanding and experience  and should be a must do for the Sydney Festival.

Monday, 19 January 2015

THE GENESIAN THEATRE’S ‘THE WINSLOW BOY’ dissected by Rhiona

Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play ‘The Winslow Boy’ is the story of fourteen year old Ronnie Winslow and his family’s fight to prove his innocence after an accusation of theft at the Royal Naval College at Osbourne. The play, based on a true incident, is full of subtle social commentary and moral dilemmas that encompass one’s duty to the heart and obligations to the family.

This production, directed by Nanette Frew, did fairly well to keep up with the pace of Rattigan’s writing and overall delivered a rather polished performance.

Unfortunately, there were a few little things that hindered the production from being ‘fantastic’.

In terms of blocking, you had actors moving mindlessly merely to accommodate other characters. After standing up from reading on the lounge to kiss her father, what motivation does Catherine have to move to the other chair to continue reading – apart from not overcrowding stage right? 

Having said that, even when there was little blocking, it felt unnatural. Characters would stand facing each other in a way that seemed less due to a formality and more so of awkwardness, leaving the scene rather stagnant.

The blocking should generally accompany the script. Instead, what we had here at times was a gag emerging from the discrepancies – Violet asks Ronnie for a kiss, gets a hug. This would be fine given a little consistency – mother asks Ronny for a kiss, gets a kiss. I could pin it down to the closeness of relationships, but from the audience’s perspective (laughing) it just felt like a lack attention detail.

On that note, the devil is in the detail; so when Ronnie shows up “all wet” and “shivering” I expect the lad not to be bone dry. I can suspend my disbelief but not when the rest of the production was designed for realism.

Set design by Owen Gimblett was accurate for the period, but the actors’ interaction in the space did beg questions about his use of space. Although aesthetically pleasing and superficially quite practical, there was an awkward amount of movement behind this chair and that chair and around that area over there. Perhaps it was a lack of familiarity or maybe it comes down to the blocking, but it did seem like the performers had to weave through the set a little too conscientiously to be comfortable.

Grace and Arthurs Winslow (Lois Marsh, David Stewart-Hunter) were very well cast and fulfilled their roles to a tee. Sonya Kerr also gave a striking performance in her role as Catherine Winslow, Ronnie’s strong, independent and forward-thinking sister. 

Tom Massey, who played Desmond, deserves a special round of applause. He made his narrative the most endearing but by no means the most important. He left me wanting him to be rewritten into more scenes, but didn’t detract from or undermine the plights of the other characters.

Likewise with Roger Gimblett in the role of Sir Robert Morton. Although a more significant part, he carried himself with such confidence and performed with a particular finesse which not only made his scenes more enjoyable, but the production as a whole.


The Genesian’s performance of ‘The Winslow Boy’ was true to the story and followed the line of most adaptations. Thanks to a traditional approach and a talented cast, this production didn't fall short of Rattigan's writing. 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

‘MASTERCLASS’ dissected by me

‘Masterclass’ is the brainchild of actors Gareth Davies and Charlie Garber, currently playing as the opening act of the new regime and season at the Old Fitz. We enter an imaginative world where Davies plays an actor so powerful in his craft that his skill is not only formidable, for an audience it’s also potentially fatal. Garber, Davies’ soul mate character creation, is our guide to Davies’ history as baby, chorus member in Les Mis, actor and now reluctant master of teaching the craft itself. We are taken into the laboratory of backstory, the dream forge of the future and then thrown back squarely into the present. Think of it like ‘A Christmas Carol’ in a contemporary telling of boys’ own adventure stories. 

Davies and Garber capture a sense of play in their one hour show that is reminiscent of those clever young men you sometimes have the pleasure of teaching, whose sense of the ridiculous becomes the catalyst for creating polished devised work, rooted in improvisation and designed to delight their friends and each other with their skill for the absurd and their commitment to take it all the way to the end.  Energetic and focused, it can sometimes feel indulgent but they and their work are so infinitely likeable that it is easy to watch and enjoy and it is more than a pleasant way to spend an evening, even if they haven’t quite mastered the vulnerability needed to paint all the areas of this imaginative canvas.  But this is a work in progress for the boys- this is their third incarnation of the show- and it will continue to grow and refine and no doubt, it will find a way to hit each note as it develops.

What Davies and Garber do draw upon so delightfully is a sense of parody of those dreadful acting classes that ask you to publicly unpack and re-enact your painful past, the more adversity and harrowing, the better. Much of the show is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the very style of exercise that is the equivalent of fingernails down a chalkboard but allows us to laugh at its function and affect.

These boys know their audience- stacked with actors who appreciate the levels in which Davies and Garber draw their material. But even the unknowing audience member can recognize the journey and enjoy it, like an episode of 'The Simpsons' where the superficial is just as pleasing as the in-jokes for a knowing and more mature audience and it heightens the humour of the material and delivery. Further to that, the camaraderie is obvious and adds to the cheekiness of interplay.

It’s nice to see the Old Fitz alive with a collective who are willing to risk, push, play and create with an affable charm. There’s a buzz running through the space, which will help to counteract the numbness of sitting on the wooden steps until they find a way to afford to put seating back into the building.


So be prepared to enter an imaginative space and laugh at its frivolity and charisma and welcome a new energy into the Old Fitz.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

SYDNEY THEATRE’S BEST AND WORST OF 2014 according to SOYP

In the last dying hours of 2014 it seems opportune to reflect on some of the best outings to the theatre over the year and those on the other side of the coin that made me want to go out the stage door and have a good cry for the state of theatre in Sydney.

This year I was joined by two other very able writers to review the plethora of choices on offer and even then, we couldn’t get to all of it. However, this post will only cover the shows I saw. That means I have to omit shows I’ve heard great things about that fell off my radar due to other commitments, like Belvoir’s ‘The Glass Menagerie’ or STC’s “Switzerland’, of which I heard resounding praise. It also means that my other writers, Hayley and Rhiona, might have seen brilliant or diabolical shows that they reviewed but unless I saw it, it won’t rate a mention. And without further delay, here we go.

THE BEST:

Without a doubt, the winner this year was one company- Sport for Jove. Most recently for their production of ‘The Crucible’ but across the year their versions of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ and the one I was most impressed with, Ibsen's ‘A Doll’s House’ cements SFJ as Sydney’s most reliable, creative and leading independent theatre company. Whatever they program, see it.

On the back of that, when Damien Ryan joined forces with Bell Shakespeare to direct ‘Henry V’, he gave us one of Bell’s best renditions of the play we could have hoped to see. Bell’s ‘Tartuffe’ was also a winner with Kate Mulvany and Sean O’Shea stealing the show.

For cutting edge theatre, Perth Theatre Company’s ‘It’s Dark Outside’ with their use of puppetry, projection and integration of live action delivering a conceptual and metaphorical playbuilt show around Alzheimer’s was not only highly creative but also incredibly moving. STC, The Border Project and Ontroerend Goed brought us ‘Fight Night’ earlier in the year and for a piece of interactive theatre that made us realize as audience our profound influence on the outcome of events as well as how easy we are to manipulate was not only fascinating but great entertainment.

As far as musical theatre goes, Squabbalogic’s ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ was a force to be reckoned with. James Jay Moody’s direction and performance was thoroughly likeable and shows like this have certainly reinvigorated the new Hayes Theatre, formally known as the Darlinghurst Theatre, and made musical theatre trendy all over again to the more discerning theatre-goer. Musical Theatre got another gift at the end of the year with the New Theatre’s ‘Sweeney Todd’. Produced on the budget of a smell of an oily rag and the goodwill of all involved, it gave the New its biggest success all year and showcased some incredible talent on the scene.

THE WORST:

It has to be there. This year I made a deliberate effort to avoid it if at all possible. If it was panned by even the kindest of critics or friends, I tried to stay away. Honestly, when time is precious, three hours of wrist slashing theatre is the last thing I want, even if it makes good copy. But try as I may, I stumbled upon shows that unfortunately find themselves in this category.

David Williamson gets two mentions here and given his frequency in programming this year, he should be lucky to just get the two. But in fairness, if Bryan Brown hadn’t been in STC’s ‘Travelling North’, it probably wouldn’t have made it here. Watching Brown act is like trying to have a conversation with google maps. Robotic, wooden, clich├ęd and comatose is what Brown delivers and that’s in his brighter moments. The Ensemble didn’t fare much better with Williamson’s ‘Cruise Control’ but the writing was so ordinary that they were already limited in what they could do with it. But the death scene was like the icing on the cake of contrived staging to convey contrived writing.

The Genesian Theatre’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ took a sledgehammer to Jane Austen with some poor casting and direction and STC’s ‘Mojo’ found itself in trouble having to replace Sam Haft at the last minute and it never got its mojo happening on stage after that.

But it was Belvoir who managed to kick out some corkers this year, starting with the experimental ‘Oedipus Schmoedipus’. Conceptually it was a really interesting idea. As a piece of theatre it died more times than its cast. If the clean up of the stage takes ten minutes to do in a one hour show, rethink your vision. But its issues were bigger than that. It committed the crime of being extremely boring and if not for the audience stacked with friends and family of each night’s temporary cast, punters would have stayed away in their droves. I wish I had.

Controversially, I hated their downstairs production of ‘Oedipus’ almost as much, if not more. Yet it was a critic favourite, which just goes to show that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Whilst applauding the bravery of its cast, I found this cringe worthy from start to finish and I hope to never see Peter Carroll’s tackle ever again. But it was their ‘Hedda Gabler’ that seemed to unite audience everywhere to ask the same question. Why? Why make the choice to take a play with a clear message and through-line and then butcher it to have nothing to say at all? Why cast Ash Flanders and then limit everything that makes him unique? It pre-empts Oedipus plucking out his eyes because that’s how most people felt after watching this show, and that’s if they stayed till the end, which most of the audience didn’t quite manage to do.

So that’s how I’m calling it for 2014. How does it stack up with your list? And what do you think will be the must see shows of 2015 and those that already have an aura of stink surrounding them?


Bring it on 2015 and Happy New Year to you all.

Friday, 26 December 2014

SPORT FOR JOVE’S ‘A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM’ and ‘THE CRUCIBLE’ dissected by me

It may seem an odd combination reviewing these together but as they are playing in rep by the same company currently out at Bella Vista Farm and soon on to The Leura Everglades, let’s knock them over and tell you all the reasons why seeing them both is a good idea.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is a Shakespeare classic and let’s face it, it’s probably the most performed play in the canon of Shakespeare’s works and is so well known it can feel like it’s churned out a little too often because it is a crowd pleaser. It’s for that reason, the familiarity we all have with this play, I know I can confidently take the whole family to watch it and they’ll thoroughly enjoy it. It has something for everyone (and as a side note, eight year old Emily hasn’t stopped talking about it since we saw it almost a week ago and her Christmas gift bounty was heavily influenced by her new love of Shakespeare, Titania and Bottom). Smart move parents- get your kids into theatre and Shakespeare and you’re already off to becoming Parent of the Year in my book. But because of its frequency in staging, 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' can make me feel like I'm going to see the same old interpretation all over again, like a living experience of Groundhog Day. However, this version has some sparks of originality whilst still paying homage to previous successful productions of Shakespeare's play. 

Susanna Dowling has directed ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ this time round for Sport for Jove. There is a heavy contrast evident with her vision of this military, regimented world of duty, service and even love is won through force compared to the frenzied punk and party influence of the forest, fairies portraying that youth culture of excess after dark, away from the prying eyes of their parents, in this case Titania and Oberon. Sometimes the military aspects, particularly in the opening scenes, felt a bit heavy handed but once we moved, literally, to the forest, the play comes alive and the possibilities, confusion and chaos unravels and we like it a whole lot more. I particularly enjoyed the use of the showman in Puck (Felix Jozeps) and the audience interaction of the fairies as well as the karaoke segments with Bottom (Jonathan Mill) and Titania (Francesca Savige) and the dynamic between Puck and Oberon (Christopher Tomkinson) was well executed.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ makes great use of its environment and although it can feel slightly contrived at times, there’s nothing there that will make you regret taking the trek out to the hills or mountains to catch this classic. And be prepared to get into the groove and pull out a few dance moves of your own. You might welcome it if you eat as much cheese at the picnic as I do…

‘The Crucible’, Arthur Miller’s play on the Salem witch-hunts in response to the anti-communist trials of the House of Un-American Activities in the 1950’s, is given a new life under the company’s artistic director Damien Ryan. Ryan has to be one of Australia’s best directors currently working on the scene, as evidenced most recently in his production of ‘Henry V’ for Bell Shakespeare. What Ryan knows how to do is share the vision with the rest of his team. It’s like every creative at work on the play becomes a co-director- Scott Witt with his movement and fight choreography, Anna Gardiner’s design, David Stalley’s sound design, Sian James-Holland’s lighting- Ryan knows how to get all the stakeholders to contribute to creating a full picture of the play and then impressively expressed through his actors as a final brushstroke in the narrative’s painting.

The old shed of Bella Vista Farm is the perfect setting for ‘The Crucible’. Rustic and natural enough to feel apt for the pilgrim tale, the intimacy is heightened and tension is inescapable.  We are in a space where the hundreds of burning candles not only create this old world atmosphere and location but they symbolize the short life of this burning courtroom and the Christian pretense of godly sacrifice when the potential of power abounds.

But even before the show starts, we are herded through the homestead to see rooms filled with the characters in role and in action; the stony faced Putnams (Jonathan Mill and Wendy Strehlow), Giles Corey (John Keightley), Rebecca and Francis Nurse (Annie Byron and Alan Faulkner), Elizabeth Proctor (Georgia Adamson) and Reverend Parris (Matt Edgerton) sermonizing in a way that makes us very much aware of why John Proctor (Julian Garner) would rather plough the fields on a Sunday than go to church. We see the girls dancing in the woods, abandoning all pretense of childhood compliance, their subsequent shock of discovery and then we return to our makeshift theatre to begin the play with Betty Parris (Emma Chelsey) virtually comatose on her bed, fussed over by Tituba (Suzanne Pereira), Abigail (Lizzie Schebesta) and Reverend Parris (Edgerton), filling the space with panic and fear. 

Every subtlety is within our grasp in Ryan’s production because it’s happening only a few feet away but no matter where you’re sitting, what you can’t miss is the superb acting of Garner as Proctor, closely followed by Anthony Gooley as Reverend Hale, Philip Dodd’s Judge Danforth, Schebesta’s Abigail, Adamson’s Elizabeth and Matilda Ridgway’s Mary Warren. The whole cast deliver and it feels almost unfair to not mention everybody who appears on stage- there are no weak links- but Garner in particular demonstrates such passion and range that even though I can eyeball the other side of the audience on the opposite side of the stage, we are totally engaged in the action of the play and convinced by the belief of the characters throughout.


So before you head off to all the Sydney Festival choices on offer, avail yourself of this summer of Sport for Jove. No-one quite knows how to master outdoor theatre like they do and to make you look in a new way how to interpret old works to feel as audience we are as much a part of the show as the actors.