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Sunday, 17 February 2019

Peter Pan Goes Wrong @ Lyric Theatre, dissected by me

Oh my. What a strange but entertaining night.

Fans of the original Play That Goes Wrong will understand what I mean by that first sentence. Frankly, it's not that hard to grasp. Leave behind any expectation you have for the show to go at all as planned, be willing to initiate the breaking the fourth wall at completely random points, and enjoy some absurdly priced alcohol to have a unique theatrical experience.

Much like its predecessor, we again have the fictitious Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society putting on a hastily-prepared-but-meticulously-funded performance of a literary classic, utilising its 'student'-led cast and crew to manage (or mismanage) everything and anything. It contains much of the same slapstick humour that made The Play That Goes Wrong so funny and successful - the set gradually falls apart piece-by-piece, actors are hit or injured by the unpredictable movement of others on stage, and an unreliable back-of-house crew make brief cameos with script in hand to stand in for a character they have no understanding of. 'Not quite my cup of tea', Matt remarked to me after the show, but if you're seeking high-brow intellectual humour and only realise this play is the opposite after you've paid $69 for the cheapest seats in the Lyric Theatre, the joke is well and truly on you.

As an ensemble performance, I have nothing but good things to say. Each actor demonstrates such control over the chaos of the play that together, they're just so watchable. The comedic pacing and timing is on point. The chemistry they all share is perfect.

On an individual level, it's actually a good thing there isn't a stand-out. Francine Cain as typical musical theatre chick Sandra (as Wendy) plays a smaller role than one would expect, limited to drawing laughs based on her rather out-of-place dance breaks, but otherwise is picture-perfect Wendy, singing voice and all. Darcy Brown as the womanising Jonathan (as Peter) also takes a more physical approach to his comedy but we somewhat lose his character development amidst the chaos of the play's second half, a shame if we weren't so busy focusing on other characters. Connor Crawford as the director-trying-to-hold-everything-together Chris (who plays both Captain Hook and George Darling) leads his team with brilliant failure (or failing brilliance), which in this context is a compliment, though as a Captain Hook sympathiser I must concede my biased opinion (I will die on the hill that Hook never did anything wrong). Jordan Prosser as the play's protagonist and Sandra-lovestruck Max (as Michael Darling and the under-appreciated Crocodile) as well as George Kemp, the constantly line-fed and world's baldest 8-year-old Dennis (playing John Darling and Smee) are able to involve the audience in the performance both verbally and emotionally better than any other duo, making us laugh constantly at the same repeated joke. However, in a sea of stand-outs, Jay Laga'aia as Francis (as the Narrator and Cecco) is the most warmly received; even managing to squeeze in a rendition of the Play School theme into the show,  if you're going to watch the performance for any reason, please make it Jay. Even if it isn't, by the end of his performance, it will be when you see it again.

The beauty of the script (from Olivier Award winners Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields) is that it allows for each character's style of comedy to flourish throughout the performance whilst also allowing for much more substantive character development than what the audience anticipates. Max's self-doubt, love for Sandra, and belittling by the rest of the cast for his lack of acting skills give his character more complexity than one initially anticipates; allowing Prosser to essentially give two performances rather than one. Jonathan's womanising of both Sandra and Annie (who plays Tinkerbell and is played by Tammy Weller) does what no play should do and makes us root against the title character, which allows for even more comedy. However, I would advise arriving significantly early to the performance and paying close attention; not only couldn't I find out the names of the minor cast without the program, but before the allotted start time the cast themselves are on stage, providing key messages to the audience (such as when to boo, how to react when a character enters the stage, and even respond to key lines in the performance with their own retort). It's a little like how the Pop-Up Globe went about their performances, and not knowing these meant I missed out on getting the full experience.

Since The Play That Goes Wong won a Tony for Best Scenic Design, I both believe (but feel obligated to say) that Simon Scullion's Set Design should meet any hype it gets; a rotating set (that, spoiler alert, eventually can't stop rotating) takes us through a Darling bedroom, sparse Neverland, and minimalist Hook's Ship which are equal parts beautifully constructed, painstakingly put-together, and conducive to the comedy that faulty wiring can produce. While I'm on production, stay back a little after the performance to hear some of Ella Wahlstrom's Sound Design; audition tapes and other associated materials give an unexpected last laugh to what is already an incredibly funny show.

Ultimately, after the The Book of Mormon graced its stage, Resident Director Luke Joslin's Peter Pan Goes Wrong seems like just the right show for the Lyric Theatre to put on next. Fans of the original will be pleasantly surprised by the increased sophistication of the script, those yet to see either will love the uncommon dependence the play has on the audience to create humour, and kids will laugh because at one point someone moons the audience (though that is also just funny in general). It's a win-win-win.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

STC's Mary Stuart, dissected by me

If I needed to summarise everything about Mary Stuart in one word - the direction, script, performance and design - I think the best word would be unexpected.

In the somewhat pricey program (aren't the seats expensive enough?), Adapter Kate Mulvaney advises one to 'leave any preconceptions you had about Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots at the door'; very wise words indeed. If you don't, as was my case, the ensuing 2 hours is rather, well, tumultuous. Her adaptation presents far more realistic and relatable caricatures of royalty and nobility than what I had anticipated going in, which forces one to very quickly rethink how these figures actually interacted with one other. It's both unnerving and somehow endearing to hear Queen Elizabeth (Helen Thomson) constantly scream 'fuck off' to her court, or to have to sit through the disgraced Mary Stuart's (Caroline Brazer) salacious banter with jailor Paulet (Simon Burke). It ultimately presents a challenge to us (and to the actors) to see all sides of each character's personalities, a challenge that takes some time to accept but is essentially forced down our throats due to the script's contemporary nature.

After the first 20 minutes, luckily, we become used to it. Brazer as the title character begins the performance in a little bit of an awkward state, with the audience unsure exactly how to react to her playful-but-deeply-hurting state that was exacerbated by the all-projection-no-emotion performance by Fayssal Bazzi (as Catholic rebel Mortimer). Yet, we come to reconsider how we see Stuart as the character of Queen Elizabeth is introduced; Thomson's control over her character's arrogance, entitlement, sense of humour and sincerity allows us to both love and hate the Virgin Queen exactly as the script intended and sympathise with her Scottish cousin. Her monologues late in the show tend to drag on a bit but the solid foundation she established early on allows us to turn a blind eye to these slightly overplayed moments. It's hard to pick a standout from the supporting cast - they all tend to follow a similar development that doesn't give them a whole lot of diversity. Bazzi improves as his lines diminish; Burke's calm stage presence is always welcome and well acted in a play full of egos; Matthew Whittet as French diplomat Aubespine deserves acclaim for his voicework; and Rahel Romahn as Elizabeth's secretary Davison has this Richard Atkinson-like aura that makes his limited time on stage incredibly memorable (I genuinely hope he does stand-up on the side). I wish we saw more of Shrewsbury (Peter Carroll) and less of Leicester (Andrew MacFarlane); Carroll's particular style of comedy is genuinely missed later on, leaving him without much to do, and Leicester's role as an advisor to Queen Elizabeth is necessary to indicate her struggle for power as a woman but I think could be shortened without losing the skill MacFarlane brings to the cast. Finally, and I'm including this mention because I don't want her to feel left out, but go Darcey Wilson as the Young Girl - you had no lines, but damn you can clean up the stage and serve drinks well. Maybe bring something bigger than a hand towel to wash up all that blood from a failed assassination attempt though.

From a production perspective, though, there is little to fault. The powdered wigs, sparkly dresses, corsets and crowns of the era are reproduced to near perfection by Costume Designer Mel Page; no more does her talent shine through than in a dance sequence near the middle of the play, when a masquerade of Queen Elizabeth's traverse the stage. Under a blood-coloured stage (courtesy of Paul Jackson's lighting), John O'Connett's choreography adds the piece-de-resistance to what I believe is the show's best couple of minutes (with no dialogue or real acting during this). Also, be weary of Elizabeth Gadsby's set - much like the staircase at Hogwarts, it 'likes to change' (yes, that's an actual quote from a Harry Potter movie; yes, I am a big enough nerd to remember it). There's even a savagery to Max Lyandvert's Sound Design that I feel needs mentioning (but won't elaborate on to avoid spoilers).

Ultimately, in a play full of challenges, Director Lee Lewis takes on the biggest one and attempts to make the old new. I'm interested to see how STC's older audience reacts to it, but from my perspective, it's quite a lovely show. Whilst I find it disgraceful they didn't give Lady Darci and Tinkerbelle (both playing Mary's nameless dog) a bow nor a mention in the program (allegedly they're considered 'extras' when in fact they truly are the play's heroes), that's a fight between me and the STC (for now, at least). Go in with an open mind, and for the most part you should be pleasantly surprised.

Friday, 8 February 2019

My Night With Reg @ New Theatre, dissected by me

Before anything else, it's a bit delayed but massive congratulations to New Theatre's success at the Sydney Theatre Awards. To the team behind Stupid Fucking Bird, Annie Stafford, the other nominees and the theatre itself, SOYP is proud. I'm especially proud of those team members who also read this blog. Everyone worked hard, but because you're my readers and I'm allowed to be biased, you're the real MVPs.

In addition to this, I also want to congratulate the team of My Night With Reg for an enthralling, incredibly funny, and engaging performance.

There's a surprisingly high level of adaptability within Kevin Elyot's 25-year-old script that allows it to sit comfortably in the highly different social landscape we're now in. Even though the gay sextet (pun completely intended) that comprise the show's cast can be hard to remember by name if one isn't paying close attention, from the quiet, reserved Guy (John-Paul Santucci) to the charming and chiselled John (a clean-shaven James Gordon) and even the larger-than-life flamboyant (or, if you live in Newtown, the regularly-seen-in-life flamboyant) Daniel (Steven Ljubovic), there's an emotional depth within each character that makes them all equally intriguing on different levels nonetheless. In the living room of Guy's apartment, where they all go about discussing their respective pasts, futures, and individual experiences with the deific Reg (I'll leave you to guess what his godly ability is and where the source of its power is located), whom the audience never sees,  there's experiences and heartbreaks we can all relate to on some level, regardless of sexual orientation.

Experiences and heartbreaks that are brought to life by the cast's immensely strong ensemble work - the chemistry between all those on stage is the real highlight of the show, allowing us to truly believe their emotions often more so than some of the script's monologues. It's so hard to pick one dynamic duo, whether it be the young, hopeful Eric (Michael Brindley) with his pseudo-daddy figure John or the chinstrapped Eric Stonestreet/Australian-beer-ad-bloke combination of Bernie (Nick Curnow) and Benny (Steve Corner), that I'll make the job easy for myself and simply say that they all stand out. With only one real ego clash (between John and Daniel), we're given enough difference between characters to allow the actors to work well together. On an individual level, however, there are times when these characters can come across a bit contrived. Santucci's Guy and Curnow's Bernie, by virtue of their more sensitive natures, can sometimes stick out like a sore thumb; this was the case in one of Bernie's monologues directed at the more brusque Benny, which lacked enough internalised desperation to truly express the frustration Bernie feels. Guy's careful selection of words and calculated movements seemed to drag just a bit behind the other characters at times, slowing the fast-paced play at moments that didn't always require such a sudden shift of pace. That being said, Brindley's intricate embodiment of Eric, as well as his mastery of the Birmingham accent, makes him a joy to watch and hear. He holds his own alongside Corner, the two undoubtedly the pick of the cast when it comes to individual performances.

On a side note, it would be remiss of me not to mention the inclusion of rain just visible to the upper right side of the set, courtesy Set Designer Tom Bannerman; both for its symbolic purpose, but also because it reminded me of that rain-mirror-thing from The Room. Also, if Costume Designer Sallyanne Facer can tell me where she sourced Daniel's and Bernie's wardrobe, that would be much appreciated - I felt under-dressed in the face of such style (though not as underdressed as Gordon and Brindley likely felt in their brief but rather unexpected nude scene, so maybe I shouldn't complain).

Ultimately, it's good to see Alice Livingstone back in the director's chair since last year's The Elements of an Offence, and even better to see that being the director's chair of another brilliant New Theatre production. Here's to what I hope is yet another good sign for the year to come.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

A Room With a View @ Genesian Theatre, dissected by Matt

Any purist would know of the anxieties present in watching an adaptation of a literary classic. This was particularly after Sport by Jove’s Moby Dick, where (in my opinion) the play was well executed, but script limiting and clipped of Herman Melville’s touch. With that being the case, the question is: is Genesian able to distil the essence and humanity of A Room with a View into a two-hour play?

Thankfully, I can say with a deep feeling of relief, that Director Mark Nagle nailed it (‘nagled’ it?) this time around. The performance and its execution by the Genesian Theatre Company is very by the book, which might not appeal to everyone (though it did the trick for me). It feels safe, and after watching the spectacularly edgy Herringbone last week, I relished the comfort of this traditional theatre.

The acting from this play highlights how community theatre is continually able to punch above its weight. The characters were highly believable and engaging, with strong performances from Phoebe Atkinson (as the struggling Lucy Honeychurch), Karyn Hall (as Miss Lavish) and Ravel Balkus (the boyish Freddy Honeychurch). Notably, Atkinson successfully countenances the composure and grace of Edwardian expectation with an air of youthful hope and rejuvenation. Hall’s performance reminded me so much of an English relative it was uncanny and Balkus was able to make me forget that there was an actor behind Freddy, seemingly embodying the true nature of his essence. Credit also to the deceptively inauthentic and manipulative Charlotte Bartlett (Anna Desjardins); the wise and entertaining Mr Beebe (Tristian Black); and the Emmerson’s (Christopher Dibb and Joshua Sediak), a beacon of light to the audience. However, despite many strong performances, Valentin Lang’s internalisation of the superficially knowledgeable high-status figure of Cecil Vyse felt a little out-of-touch in the midst of his fellow cast. Though, I believe this is less a weakness of Lang’s acting – moreso as a general shortcoming of the adaptation to properly engage insight into that specific character.

The play just seemed like it all worked well and cohesively with one another from a production perspective as well. The set (courtesy of Mark Bell and Nagle) was very cleverly thought out, being able to double as both Florence and England very convincingly. The attention to detail was absolute, as seen in a Florentine church scene using a backlit stain glass piece in the background with seamless multicoloured lights (courtesy of Michael Schell) to enhance the effect making it all very convincing. It is these little things that make such a difference for the audience’s experience and perception of the play.

Ultimately, whilst the play’s orthodox and by-the-book attitude may not be for everyone, I commend it as a didactic coming-of-age story about living life out as an authentic autonomous agent. Well done to the Nagle, his cast and the production team for creating such a worthy adaptation to a well-known and loved literary classic.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Herringbone @ KXT, Squabbalogic's comeback dissected by Matt

Herringbone, a potentially ambiguous name that alludes to a pattern could mean just about anything. I’ll be the first to admit that I had little idea what to expect from a “vaudevillian ghost story”. The title itself was intriguing, if not outright mysterious. Happily, I can say that I got far more than I bargained for in Squabbalogic’s Herringbone.

What made this play, Squabbalogic’s comeback after 2 years hiatus, so interesting was the multidimensional aspects that the play presents to its audience. On the surface, it is an orthodox, charismatically entertaining vaudevillian performance. However, underneath this orthodoxy hides a tale of deep implication, that amazingly is able to strike a balance and not present harsh judgement onto its characters for their otherwise highly immoral actions. In essence, on one level the audience is watching a performance not too dissimilar to the concert halls of New York or London in the early 20th century, however on another we take a deep overview of the broader surrounds that reveals a trove of elements that subvert and inform our humanity: desperation, revenge and self-indulgence. It is the reimagining of the vaudeville genre that makes this play a must see.

The performance is (with the exemption of the musical troupe) a pure vaudevillian delight, a one-man show performed by the immensely talented Jay James-Moody. It tells the story of a young George Nookin, who, upon winning a local Lions speech competition, is recommended to go to Hollywood to take up commercial radio and film opportunities. However, the apparition of the ghost Lou the Frog changes everything with murder, money and immorality. The script is able to masterfully bridge a tension between financial desperation, grotesque immorality, and greed through comedy. The performance of this oldish tale has a spectre of the absurd from the outset, with James-Moody coming onstage with an eerie white face and just a singlet and underwear as the older Nookin. In total James-Moody acts an eye-watering eleven different roles (Herringbone; Arthur; Louise; Grandmother; George; Lawyer; Nathan Mosely, the Chicken; Tailor; Howard; Lou, the Frog; and Dot), which marks a truly amazing ninety-minute monologue, interspersed in what can only be described as an unfolding decline in humanity is song and dance in the true vaudevillian tradition. These musical numbers (totalling fifteen) range from funny to grotesque, but nonetheless find a way to be endlessly entertaining and engaging. Indeed, some of the scripts more tired moments are helped enormously by the sudden song and dance that really helps the audience connect with what the zeitgeist of a particular scene is trying to convey.

Yet, a good script and a good actor is not everything in a production. I am glad to say that the elements around this play were very well executed. The musical troupe did an amazing job forming a distant yet very relevant part of the play as James-Moody would from time-to-time interact with their presence, which was very clever when it is common for musical elements to be not tangible or hidden away in most other productions. It was a true compliment to the purposes of the performance. The breaking of the fourth wall into the audience happens with reasonable regularity and as such the very intimate space served its purpose very well to great effect.

Ultimately, to call this a play would be very incorrect. I’m honestly not sure what to call it. Thus, seeing something so very different from what I consider theatre was a breath of fresh air. I commend James-Moody (Artistic Director of Squabbalogic), co-director Michael Ralph and the production team for pulling off a performance that is so remarkably different and untouched by many directors around the world. It’s good to see them back in action.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

THE BIG TIME @ Ensemble Theatre, dissected by me

The Big Time. Everyone has an idea of what it means, but I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone that can give an all-encompassing, objective statement defining it. I believe that's because everyone's 'big time' is different. Making the big time could mean getting married. It could also mean directing Hugh Jackman in an independent film. Or learning the floss dance when you are over 30 years of age.

The beauty of David Williamson's new comedy is that it addresses all of these perceptions of the 'big time' (yes, even the floss dance one). It's a deftly-woven tale from the man who draws the ire of innumerable high school drama students (I'm still getting over his 'if roots were hamburgers she could feed an army' line from The Removalists), standing as another great addition to his seemingly endless list of stage and screen credits. An apt performance by the cast, who need to jump through numerous comedic and dramatic hoops throughout the show, ensures that Williamson's words get much of the respect they deserve, even if at times it may not seem so.

It must be said that the play seems to take some time to explain each character before any real clear plot takes place. We learn of struggling writer Rohan Black's (Jeremy Walters) defiant self-belief, unmirrored by any other character, a while before his chance at a Netflix series presents itself. We hear about the ego battle between Logie-winning 'soapie' star Celia Constanti (Aileen Huynh) and theatre-is-the-only-true-art-form-have-some-goddamn-self-respect-Jesus-Christ-this-is-a-long-hyphenation-but-perfectly-sums-up-the-character-of Vicki Fielding (Claudia Barrie) long before we see it demonstrated as they continuously one-up each other for various roles in various projects. Somewhere in the middle of all this, the external force that is Rolly Pierce (Ben Wood) chugs along, losing his wife to a real estate agent, his daughter to her unborn child, and his car to some company called Uber whilst organising a high school reunion and the idea for Black's Netflix series. However, this shouldn't be viewed negatively. Rather, Williamson has given us time to understand, sympathise, and at times despise each member either for what they do or what they are forced to do by the customs of the industry they are in.

This discernment of this duality heaps another challenge onto the cast, and for the most part this (and the others) are strongly tackled. Walters, no doubt off the renewed high of The Rolling Stone's and The Flick's successes, flexes his range like Arnold at the 1975 Mr. Olympia. There's an internalisation to his characterisation that suits Rohan perfectly, partnered with a fight between earning respect and holding respect for the self that is highly engaging. His comedic timing is also strong enough to get the most out of his quips and deliberate pauses. Constanti and him are a fine pairing, if Constanti's alleged naivety can make Huynh's performance come across as not internalised enough at times. Fielding, who is mostly seen in the show's first half, also suffers from this lack of internalisation; Barrie tries to take us down her journey of unbridled arrogance, but gets a little waylaid as she attempts to balance desperation for recognition with a firm belief in her own talent, throwing out different signals to the audience that run the risk of going scrambled. Zoe Carides as agent Nelli Browne and Matt Minto as producer Nate Macklin provide fine supporting performances, appearing only sporadically but never dousing the flame of the show's leads. Yet, Wood's performance has to be the standout; his unpretentiousness, incredible mastery of the show's humour, and skill in jumping from comedy to tragedy in the same line make his debut for Ensemble one to remember. In a small cast crowded with talent, his onstage presence is the most welcome.

Ultimately, Williamson and Mark Kilmurry (whose direction has never failed to impress and still doesn't) have shown to me why I hold Ensemble to such a high standard. It's a disgrace this show is two hours, the second half so short, and the cast so good, but a disgrace I'll force myself to live with. Another great start to 2019.